Jamaica Mar 22—29, 2009
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
Jamaica boasts some of the best birding in all of the Caribbean. No Caribbean island has more endemic birds, and almost all of them are easily seen. Our 2009 tour once again succeeded in seeing all of the known extant endemic species of Jamaica, all 27 or 28 of them, depending on which checklist you subscribe to. We saw an additional 9 species endemic to the Caribbean and many subspecies endemic to Jamaica. And while endemic species are often the focus of island birding, there were certainly numerous highlights during our birding week that involved widespread birds like Northern Potoo and White-tailed Tropicbird.
As I mentioned before, most of Jamaica's endemic species are fairly easy to see. White-chinned Thrush, much like the American Robin, is a garden bird and we saw it every day. The absolutely splendid Jamaican Tody is delightfully common, though not terribly conspicuous. We saw many during the week and were often clued into their presence by their quiet wheezing calls. This gem of a bird was once again voted favorite of the trip. And what's not to like about a confiding little bird with a moss-green back, yellow belly, pink flanks, a baby-blue malar, bright red throat, and an outlandishly large bill that looks like it belongs on a much bigger bird? There's nothing not to like—that's why it's on our checklist cover.
Another fantastic endemic that isn't hard to find is the Jamaican Spindalis. Such a stunning bird; we were feeling guilty by the end of the week when we started saying, "Oh, it's just another Spindalis." Of course, you have to mention the hummingbirds. The streamertails are so common and remarkably beautiful that they are the national bird, and their image can be found throughout the country. We saw both Red-billed and Black-billed streamertails, in addition to the Jamaican Mango and the near-endemic Vervain Hummingbird, the second smallest bird in the world.
But then there are a few that aren't so easy to find. Every year it seems like a different species decides to be difficult, and this year it was (fittingly) the rarest of the endemics, the Jamaican Blackbird. This bird has a fairly small range and a predictable habit of feeding in bromeliads, so we knew that we could narrow our search and, given enough patience, we had good odds of success. Well, as our stomachs started to grumble, our patience started to fade, but right before we had to leave for lunch at the chalet in the Blue Mountains, Brandon found our bird. We had brief, but good looks that we were able to improve upon the next day when Brandon conjured another for us in the scenic John Crow Mountains.
So enough about all the wonderful endemics; they're certainly not the only show in town. In fact, the second favorite bird of the trip was the Northern Potoo. This species can be found throughout Mexico and Central America, but it is rarely seen as well as we saw ours at Marshall's Pen. We usually settle for night views by spot light, but sometimes we are lucky and find one on a day roost. Never have I seen one at eye level only five feet away in broad daylight! I'm not sure our cameras will ever be the same. Totally confident in its camouflage, the bird patiently indulged the beeps and clicks of our cameras and the oohs and aahs from our gaping mouths. It was certainly a sighting to remember. Another non-endemic that tried to steal the show was White-tailed Tropicbird. These birds nest in cliffs on Jamaica's eastern shore, and several pairs put on a fine show for us as we watched from atop the cliff with the incredibly blue Caribbean Sea providing the backdrop. It's not often that you can get such great views of a pelagic bird with your feet on dry land!
In addition to the fantastic birding, we were constantly impressed by the natural beauty of Jamaica and relished our time at historic Marshall's Pen. We sampled Jamaica's famous jerk style cooking and many of us had our lifer "Ackee and Saltfish," the national breakfast of Jamaica. Once again our local guide, Brandon Hay, did a splendid job of putting us on the birds and sharing his wealth of local knowledge, and we were grateful for Anne Sutton's hospitality and her sharing the fascinating history of Marshall's Pen. I can't wait to go back!