Jamaica, March, 2005 Mar 19—26, 2005

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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Our 2005 Jamaica tour was an enchanting experience in which we recorded all 29 of the known island endemics, never an easy feat to be sure, as well as an impressive list of butterflies compiled and contributed by Lynn Jackson, one of our participants. While finding all the special birds of the country was the ultimate priority, providing a Jamaican ?vacation? of an entirely different sort was also a goal. Far from the crowded beachfront high-rise hotels of Montego Bay, with the attendant throngs of sunburned tourists, this tour was a traipse across the length of the island that took us to places most people would never get to. Jamaica is, furthermore, always interesting at the least, and breathtakingly beautiful much of the rest of the time. The broad array of habitats we spent time in simply rounded out the experience.

Our tour began auspiciously enough with a trip to Rocklands Bird Sanctuary. Perhaps second only to Marshall?s Pen as a famous Jamaican birding location, Rocklands served as a wonderful introduction to the birds of the island, highlighted by the fabulous experience of hand-feeding Jamaican Mango and Red-billed Streamertail hummingbirds. Both species are truly among the most beautiful of this tropical group. The Streamertail is probably the bird more people want to see the most. The national bird of Jamaica, it is an extraordinary jewel of topaz and emerald. While seen commonly every day, our bedazzlement never ceased. The Jamaican Mango was equally enthralling. A mixture of plum, copper, and black, this most unusually colored hummingbird was always a welcome sight.

At Marshall?s Pen, the gardens, paths, and forest trails held a bright assortment of butterflies and more than half of the endemic birds. The Jamaican Tody was an ever-present delight, while the prehistoric-looking Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo held a commanding presence one morning as it scolded us from overhead. It would be hard not to want to choose the roosting Jamaican Owls as the preeminent birding experience at the Pen; after all, how often are we so fortunate as to be able to watch owls by day? Indeed, once discovered, we enjoyed these peculiar night birds through the scope on a daily basis. For those early birds who were willing to arise before sunup, the reward was Ruddy Quail-Doves strutting down the trail in plain sight!

Choosing highlights in a place like Jamaica is nigh impossible. In addition to the birds mentioned above, daily encounters with Jamaican Woodpeckers, Jamaican Orioles, Jamaican Euphonias, and Jamaican Vireos helped imprint these species on our minds. A star attraction was the multicolored Jamaican Spindalis, whose immaculate combination of black, white, orange, and brown became an expected daily treat.

Our side trip to the Black River one afternoon couldn?t have been more rewarding. Imagine the sight of 200 endangered West Indian Whistling-Ducks basking in the afternoon sunshine, while Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinules stalked the marshy edges. An added bonus was the single Fulvous Whistling-Duck discovered by Victor on the mud flats. A very rare bird in Jamaica, its discovery turned an already exciting afternoon into a great afternoon!

The vast system of ridges and valleys that characterize Cockpit country is one of Jamaica?s most environmentally sensitive and critically important wildlife areas. Easily reached from Marshall?s Pen, we enjoyed a terrific morning of birding and scenery gazing. With Yellow-billed and Black-billed parrots flying overhead and hulking Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos perched in plain sight, our time here could hardly have been better. This ecosystem has become seriously threatened, so this was both a rewarding and satisfying experience.

Putting an exclamation mark on our stay at the Pen was our tour of the colonial-era great house on the final evening. Ann Sutton was an excellent host as she entertained our interested group with stories and photographs that trace the Sutton family name way back in Jamaican history.

Though we finally had to say goodbye to Marshall?s Pen, we still had much to look forward to on the eastern side of the country. Most of a day in the Port Royal Mountains outside Kingston provided a nice combination of great birding and outstanding scenery. The day?s highlight had to be the prolonged scope view of a shy Ring-tailed Pigeon. Studied at length by all, this species is usually only seen in flight. This sighting capped off a day in which we found almost 20 of the island endemics! Aside from the pigeon sighting, exceptional views of Arrow-headed Warbler, Jamaican Becard, and Jamaican Elaenia were added bonuses.

Our final day of the trip was perhaps the most memorable and rewarding. Down to three endemics left to find, we had a final chance for them in the John Crow Mountains of far eastern Jamaica. Beginning with a predawn departure, anticipation ran high as we looked into the face of opportunity. It would be this day or not at all.

Throughout the trip our success was due, in large part, to the expertise of Brandon Hay, a Jamaican biologist who accompanied our tour. Moving along the narrow road that traverses the Driver?s River Valley at the base of the John Crow Mountains, it was Brandon who spotted the Crested Quail-Dove low in a tree on the roadside. Though the bird flew a short distance, we eventually relocated this reclusive forest species down the hillside. With scope views for all, this most difficult of Jamaican birds was, for the moment, ours! We even woke our sleeping driver so he could partake in the shining moment.

Over the course of that final morning we would revel in close encounters with more Black-billed Parrots, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos, and Jamaican Crows. It wasn?t until after we had searched for a few hours that we ultimately found the Jamaican Blackbird, the rarest of Jamaica?s native birds. Heard first by Brandon, then spotted by Laurie, everybody easily enjoyed this retiring bromeliad-haunting species. It would be only a few minutes later that we would discover our first male Black-billed Streamertail hummingbird!

The crowning achievement to the day occurred on the return trip to Kingston when, from atop the rocky cliffs overlooking the cobalt sea, we spotted a pair of dazzling White-tailed Tropicbirds wheeling and diving over the rolling ocean before us. This experience was indeed a special ending to a great trip.