Jamaica Mar 31—Apr 07, 2010

Posted by Brennan Mulrooney

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Brennan Mulrooney

Brennan Mulrooney was born and raised in San Diego, California. Growing up, his heart and mind were captured by the ocean. He split his summer days between helping out behi...

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This year's tour of Jamaica was just like every year's tour of this gorgeous Caribbean island—a huge success. Once again we found all of the island's endemic birds, a feat we've matched every time we've visited this enchanting island. This speaks not only to the wonderful abundance of birds in Jamaica, but also to the skill and knowledge of our local leader, Brandon Hay. In total, we found all 28 Jamaican endemic species, an additional 16 endemic subspecies, and 15 species or subspecies endemic to the Caribbean. Add to this a number of attractive butterflies, stunning mountain vistas, the hauntingly beautiful Cockpit Country, and delicious local cuisine, and it's easy to see why Jamaica is such a popular destination for the traveling nature enthusiast.

Our tour got off to a great start with a visit to the sewage ponds at Montego Bay. We normally don't check this spot, but with the island just coming out of an extremely dry winter, we were afraid that we might miss some wetland birds otherwise. Well, it certainly paid off, as we found a great variety of waterbirds including a flock of Least Grebes, an unusually conspicuous Masked Duck, and a Caribbean Coot.

Our next stop was the famous Rocklands Bird Sanctuary. Red-billed Streamertails and Black-faced Grassquits perched on our fingers as they took advantage of our sugar water and seed offerings. Jamaican Orioles, Bananaquits, and the improbably cobalt-blue and orange-colored Orangequits all competed for sugar and bites of citrus fruit. Zenaida Doves and Jamaican Woodpeckers perched in the garden trees and Black-throated Blue Warblers darted from bush to bush. All too soon, though, we were back on the road and heading for Marshall's Pen, where we would spend the next three nights.

At Marshall's Pen, our good fortune continued, as we found some of the harder birds rather quickly. A Jamaican Elaenia perched right over our heads before we even left the garden. Not to be outdone, the Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, a massive hulk of a bird, flew in to give us a fantastic look. Later, we were able to find the Jamaican Owl in record time, as the begging juvenile perched prominently in the giant cedar tree in the garden. With a little more effort we were able to find the Jamaican Pewee, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, Jamaican Euphonia, and several other endemics. Always a highlight of our stay, our host Ann Sutton gave a tour of the great house, providing us with a wealth of information on the history of the property and the country.

We departed early one morning from Marshall's Pen for a visit to beautiful Cockpit Country. Black-billed and Yellow-billed parrots flew through the valleys, and the bizarre-sounding Jamaican Crow was heard echoing across the hills. Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo provided fantastic views, and we found a large flowering plant that was being attended by multiple tiny, but pugnacious Vervain Hummingbirds.

The last leg of our tour is based out of Kingston. From here we visited two stunningly beautiful locations, the Port Royal Mountains and the Drivers River Valley in the John Crow Mountains. In these areas, we were able to find almost all of the endemics, including a few that we hadn't yet seen. Blue Mountain Vireo made us work a little, but when we finally found one it really put on a show for us. A pair of Jamaican Blackbirds (the rarest of the extant endemics) gave us great looks as they foraged in a bromeliad-covered tree right next to the road. A Greater Antillean Elaenia sat in the open for several minutes and sent us scrambling for our cameras, as this is a bird that is missed as often as not. The highlight of our day in the Port Royal Mountains had to be the Crested Quail-Dove. We had heard a few and even had a brief glimpse of one flying past when suddenly we saw one come hurtling in and perch on an open branch for us. It was by far the best look I had ever had at this bizarre and beautiful endemic.

Our last morning was spent on the east end of the island, and it started with a bang. From a limestone cliff above the blue Caribbean Sea, we watched at least eight White-tailed Tropicbirds flying in front of us at close range. Some of them even engaged in courtship flights, reminding us that their nests were right below us in the cliff from where we watched.

The remainder of the morning was spent on the Ecclesdown Road overlooking the Drivers River Valley. Our last endemic to find was the relatively shy Black-billed Streamertail, and despite the off-and-on rain, we were able to get multiple looks at this gem of a bird. The low cloud cover was probably responsible for the amazingly good looks we had at a flock of Black Swifts. A nice variety of warblers was also found, including Worm-eating, Magnolia, and the endemic Arrowhead Warbler. And even though we had seen them on every day of the trip, we just had to stop and look every time we heard the funny little cough of the Jamaican Tody, once again the winner of the "favorite bird of the tour" vote.

After lunch we stopped by the famous Blue Lagoon (of Hollywood fame), and then returned to Kingston for our farewell dinner.