Jamaica Mar 09—16, 2008
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
"Oh no, you won't find those up here." That's not exactly what we wanted to hear about our last target bird on the last day of our trip. Ring-tailed Pigeons are fairly common birds in Jamaica, if you're in the right habitat. It has never been a species that's challenged us in the past. Yet somehow, there we were on our last day and we had still not managed to come across one…anywhere. And now a local, and self-proclaimed birder, was telling us all hope was lost—they just don't see them there at this time of year. Could he be trusted? We'd seen one last year at this location, though it was a month earlier. There was just something about him that made me think perhaps he didn't know quite as much as he claimed. I still had hope.
We continued to enjoy that last morning up in the Port Royal Mountains; the views were spectacular, the weather was perfect, and the birding was good. We easily saw the endangered Jamaican Blackbird, usually a challenging bird to find, but not this year—we also saw one in the John Crow Mountains. Yet, this relatively common pigeon was nowhere to be seen. We saw the huge and hulking Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo and heard its haunting call. We had great looks at a singing Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, another bird that was unusually scarce this year. A perched Northern Potoo was a real treat, and we enjoyed lengthy scope views as it slowly turned its head to bask in the morning sun. The ethereal songs of Rufous-throated Solitaires serenaded us throughout the morning, and we had repeated views of Arrowhead Warbler, Jamaican Spindalis, and the truly unique Orangequit. We even had great views of a Swainson's Warbler—a bird that even when singing on breeding grounds is always hard to get a look at. And yet, we couldn't buy a glimpse of this darn pigeon.
Though most of our day was gone and we still hadn't seen our bird, we did our best to enjoy a delicious Jamaican lunch at a spa high in the mountains. The view from the terrace was impressive, and we were treated to eye level views of White-collared Swifts and Antillean Palm-Swifts streaking past on the warm breeze. Black-throated Blue and Prairie warblers frolicked in the garden, and a cooperative pair of Sad Flycatchers posed for pictures. But nobody could deny we were starting to feel the pressure. We were starting to lose faith when Ned called out, "Hey, those are pigeons!" We all looked up to see a small group of pigeons streak across the sky and out of view behind the hillside. They certainly looked like the right species, but it was a far from satisfactory view. Still, it was something. We rode a wave of optimism for the next hour, but that was to be our only sighting. We heard at least two singing far off, but they wouldn't budge. I knew that we had enough for me to at least put them on the trip list, but that's not why we were there—we wanted to really see these birds!
We stopped at a family-run coffee plantation so we could all buy some authentic Blue Mountain Coffee and were again told that we had little hope of seeing our bird. "That's fine," I told myself, "That's why he sells coffee and I lead birding tours." I wasn't going to give up. I knew we had one last slim opportunity. We were going to be passing the spot where we had seen one last year. Yes, we had been there already this morning, but maybe the birds had been elsewhere. We knew they were in the area now. As we pulled up I announced that we only had 10 minutes to give it one last effort. We piled out and I took off down the steep side road heading for a spot that I knew had a good view. I was half-way there when all of a sudden a large pigeon-like bird flushed from close by and dropped out of sight down the hill. I knew that had to be our bird. I ran back up the hill and got the group and we all marched back down the hill, moving as quietly as possible, hoping to see it without flushing it. No dice. It was nowhere to be seen. We finally got to the spot with the view, and, out of desperation, I tried some tape. To my total shock, it worked! A Ring-tailed Pigeon flew in and landed right in front of us. I couldn't believe my eyes. It sat for a few seconds, and then, with a burst of loud flapping, it was gone again. Immediately a cheer went up in the group, and we congratulated each other on our good fortune.
The walk back up the hill was (almost) effortless as we gleefully recounted the climactic conclusion of our trip. We had seen all of Jamaica's known extant endemic birds, if only just barely, and had proven that sometimes local knowledge loses out to dogged determination and maybe just a bit of luck.