Jamaica Mar 30—Apr 06, 2011

Posted by Steve Hilty


Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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JAMAICA! Yeah Man! Doctorbirds; Immigration frowns; Right hand driving; Dueling Digicel and Claro phone service; Lost bags; Narrow curvy roads; Red Stripe beer; Big Rat Auto Parts; Jamaican Redpolls (cows for you non-farmers); Shine-eye (White-eyed Thrush); Jamaican Tody; Jerk Center (pulled pork and chicken); Rastafarians; Allspice; Piggie's Mini-Mart; Yam Poles; Wait-a-bit;  Jamaican Patois; Ol'John Chuit (Black-whiskered Vireo); the Ice-man; Potoos and owls; Marshall’s Pen; Hargreve Hospital in Mandeville; Juici Patti; Club Money Train; A mi' dis, Nice-up yum pot; Mango-carrot juice; Crested Quail-Dove; Blue Mountain Coffee; Rainforest Seafood (no kidding, a real restaurant); bus driver Tyrone (honk if you see a curve ahead) and his appendaged cell phone(s); purple sorrel drink; the Courtleigh.

We extend our condolences to Brennan Mulrooney who regularly guides this trip but, at the last moment this year, was unable to guide because of a family tragedy. In a panic at the thought of a "leaderless" trip (well, there is a very competent local fellow in Lionel Town named Brandon Hay), the VENT office seemed overwhelmed with gratitude that I could help (?). Are you kidding? From my perspective, this was a gift from manna, or from somewhere. With visions of sandy beaches and panoramas of palm trees passing before my eyes, I did, however, have something to learn about Jamaica. With barely twelve hours notice before joining this trip as your "leader," and having never set foot on the island, I hurriedly looked up where Jamaica was located on a map, read that there were twenty-eight species of extant endemic birds, and noted that quite a few of the endemics had a sister-species look-alike on one or more other Caribbean islands. I also remembered  a childhood story I'd read that their most famous bird was the streamertail, a gorgeous little hummingbird with two "streaming" tail feathers, and somewhere on the island there lurked a small bird called an Arrowhead Warbler. That was pretty much the sum of my Jamaican background. A last-minute phone call to Brennan filled in a few blank spots, but left many others!

It is not often that the guide sees more life birds on a trip than the clients, but on this trip my list was as large as or larger than most of yours–and what fun it was. This pleasant and easy trip progresses more or less diagonally across the island from the northeast (Montego Bay) to the far southeast (Kingston) with a major pause for exploration in approximately the center of the island at an old colonial estate with the unlikely name of Marshall's Pen, and an equally unlikely host (Ann Sutton) who is blond (remember now, this is Jamaica), engaging, energetic, and the owner of this historic and storied property. Ann is also an author, birder, ardent and active conservationist, and keeper of the history of all things that matter at Marshall's Pen. One could hardly imagine a more delightful host or a more delightful place to stay, and in the capable hands of Jamaican guide Brandon Hay, finding the endemics seemed almost too easy…except for that quail-dove which demanded more respect, but finally gave us a beautiful show in the Blue Mountains. This trip offered digressions to marshes, mangroves, the famous cockpit region of the north central region (drier and more rugged than I had imagined), the humid and higher mountains of the eastern end of the island including the famous "Blue Mountain" coffee region, and the lovely John Crow Mountains and coast.

Judging from comments solicited at our final evening dinner (we generally had plenty of time at these meals in Kingston), the trip highlights were rich and varied, and included (in no particular order) the island's remarkable line-up of cuckoos; the Crested Quail-Dove as it jerkily foraged back and forth for trifles in a road; the streamertail experience at Rockland; Ann Sutton's hospitality; the Hargreve Hospital (not particularly a highlight, but it figured prominently in Rick's Jamaica experience); Alex Twyman's Old Tavern Coffee Estate;  the Jamaican Tody (signature Greater Antillean genus); the West Indian Whistling-Duck (my entry); Masked Ducks; and the Yellow-breasted  Crakes. The local Bananaquit wasn't bad either. Tyrone's driving did not make the list, but his horn honking was memorable to say the least.

I hope that you enjoyed this little trip in all its varied aspects. I was certainly pleased to be a part of it. With a sweep of the twenty-eight extant endemics (blame the mongoose for the two modern endemics now judged extinct) and nearly a half-dozen endemic subspecies, we did about as well as possible. Good birding and safe travels.