Jamaica Feb 18—25, 2006
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
Birders love Jamaica?known for having the most endemic bird species of any Caribbean island. It is also relatively easy to see most, if not all of Jamaica’s endemics on a birding tour. This year’s tour was no exception, as all 28 extant Jamaican endemics made fantastic appearances along our journey across this enchanting island. In addition we tallied ten Caribbean endemics, four Caribbean near-endemics, and 123 species in total.
We began our birding efforts at the justly famous Rocklands Bird Sanctuary. Here we all had the opportunity to hand-feed two of Jamaica’s spectacular endemic hummingbirds. Both the stocky, purple and black Jamaican Mango, and the flamboyant, black and emerald Red-billed Streamertail buzzed around our heads and perched on fingers, imbibing offerings of sugar water. Also on the grounds we had our first glimpses of several other wonderful species including both Black-faced and Yellow-faced grassquits (also feeding out of our hands), Caribbean Dove, Vervain Hummingbird (the second smallest bird in the world!), Orangequits, Bananaquits, and Jamaican Orioles.
Soon we had to tear ourselves away and start our trek across the spine of the island to our lodging for the next three days, Marshall’s Pen. Our drive took us through some beautiful landscapes amongst hills draped in dense, deep green forest. As we drove we were accompanied by a nearly constant parade of Jamaicans making their way on foot to Sunday church services. We must have passed more than 25 different churches in a less than three-hour trip!
Ann Sutton, our gracious host for the next three nights, greeted us at Marshall’s Pen. This is also where we met our superb local leader, Brandon Hay. Brandon’s guidance for the rest of the trip ensured that our expedition would be a total success. Marshall’s Pen was a fantastic base for our birding efforts. We were able to see more than half of the island’s endemic species on the grounds, including the difficult Jamaican Owl, which nests right in the driveway! We saw both an adult and a fuzzy juvenile on our first night there. The endemic subspecies of Northern Potoo added to the nightlife at Marshall’s Pen. It was from here that we visited the famous Cockpit Country of Jamaica’s interior. Our morning visit produced fantastic scope views of the endemic Black-billed and Yellow-billed parrots, as well as the shy and difficult to see Ring-tailed Pigeon. Back at Marshall’s Pen we were treated to delectable authentic Jamaican cuisine, and on our last morning Ann gave the group a fascinating tour of the Great House. More than 200 years old, the house has been in the Sutton family for many generations.
The remainder of our trip would be based out of Kingston, and our final two days offered both spectacular scenery and fantastic birding. Our day in the Blue Mountains, or more specifically the Port Royal Mountains, was magical right from the start. At our first stop, just as dawn was breaking, we all gathered together to slowly creep down a quiet road in search of the elusive Crested Quail-Dove. It wasn’t 30 seconds before our quarry was in view, comically tottering down the road away from us. Several times we were able to sneak up on this bird and watch as it would slowly walk back out of view around the next bend. Soon we moved on to the many other birding opportunities that awaited us.
Our first order of business was to track down the bird that had been wonderfully serenading us since we stepped off the bus. It wasn’t long before we had our initial glimpses of a Rufous-throated Solitaire, one of the few birds that look just as impressive as they sound. The endemic White-eyed Thrush may be another that fits that description, and we enjoyed watching and listening to several that morning. But perhaps our crowning achievement of that action-packed morning was tracking down our first Jamaican Blackbird. This is perhaps the least numerous of the remaining endemics, and its quiet, retiring demeanor doesn’t help when trying to locate one. With a little patience and persistence we eventually found one, creeping along branches and poking into bromeliads, acting very unlike any blackbird we were familiar with. An authentic Jamaican buffet at a remote mountain chalet was the reward for our morning’s efforts, and a visit to a Blue Mountain coffee plantation broke up our drive home.
Our final day of birding found us at the extreme eastern end of the island. We birded the Drivers River Valley in the John Crow Mountains, and it was here that we tracked down our last target bird, the Black-billed Streamertail. This sister species to the Red-billed Streamertail (or subspecies depending on your reference) can be found only here; with a little effort, we were rewarded with walk-away close-up scope views. Though this was certainly the highlight of our morning, there were many other fantastic birds that day. The hulking Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo gave us several great looks, Green-rumped Parrotlets furtively fed in the crowns of cecropias, Black-billed and Yellow-billed parrots wheeled overhead, and a Yellow-shouldered Grassquit gave us long and much appreciated views.
Our final lunch, at a traditional jerk stand in Boston Bay, was an adventure not soon to be forgotten, and a taste of real Jamaica. It was the perfect ending to a trip full of indelible memories of birds, natural beauty, hospitality, and island paradise.