Jamaica Mar 07—14, 2012
Posted by Brian Gibbons
Jamaica, an "Emerald Isle" in the Caribbean, hosts more endemic birds than any other island of the Greater Antilles. We looked around the hotel grounds on our first morning and found a few endemics, but our first real birding stop was Rocklands Bird Sanctuary. We began with point-blank looks at Orangequits, Bananaquits, Jamaican Mangos, Red-billed Streamertails on fingertips, Caribbean Doves, the tiny Common Ground-Doves, Grassquits, and Jamaican Woodpeckers devouring bananas. After enjoying these first looks at many endemics for more than one hour, we were off to Marshall's Pen. The Great House here would be our base for exploring Cockpit Country and other areas of central Jamaica for the next few days. But first we had to navigate busy towns and roads along the way.
Ann Sutton, our host at the amazing 200-year-old Marshall's Pen, is an ardent conservationist and protector of Jamaica's birdlife, as well as the author of Birds of Jamaica. She explained the beginnings of the house as a working coffee mill with housing above. The gardens and forest around Marshall's Pen host many of the island's endemics, and during our first afternoon we found Jamaican Todies, voted "bird of the trip." This tiny sprite, with its out-sized red bill, short tail, and grass-green back is always a favorite. Found only in the Greater Antilles, the five species of todies are distant kingfisher relatives. On our first evening at the Pen we were treated to good looks at the endemic Jamaican Owl as it emerged from its daytime roost in the enormous West Indian Cedar that dominates the front garden. The next morning we relished views of todies, Sad Flycatchers, Jamaican Elaenia, White-chinned Thrushes, Jamaican Becards, and one giant Cuckoo—the endemic Chestnut-bellied. A long afternoon ride dodging rain showers took us down to the south coast along the Treasure Beach area. Caribbean Coot, shorebirds, herons, egrets, and a Peregrine Falcon were found amongst Great Pedro and Parottee ponds. Our final evening destination, the Upper Morass of the Black River, hosted West Indian Whistling-Ducks, our main target. Creeping along the edge of the cattails were other marsh denizens: ibis, teal, herons, bitterns, and a much-admired Spotted Rail.
Cockpit Country, with parrots as our main quarry, was our destination the next morning. Along the road at Burnt Hill we found our first Jamaican Pewee, but the Lizard-Cuckoo largely evaded our eyes. The parrots were flying as expected, mostly high over the hills. Every once in a while a Yellow-billed pair would land for a few scope looks before continuing on their daily route. The Black-billeds were rarer and were finally seen in resting trees a few times. Along the road our first Ring-tailed Pigeons rocketed over, leaving us wanting. All through Cockpit Country the gobbling cries of the crow were heard. The karst formation that is the hilly region called Cockpit Country hosted numerous Anolis lizards too. In the afternoon we prowled the grounds at Marshall's Pen again and found White-eyed Thrushes playing hard to get.
As we traveled from Marshall's Pen to Kingston, we stopped for some birding in the Portland Ridge area. Here a rain shadow creates an arid environment with cacti and deciduous dry forest, inhabited by Stolid Flycatchers and Bahama Mockingbirds, as well as numerous overwintering North American migrants. Also along the way we birded the Cockpit Salt Marsh and the Salt River. An early start from Kingston the next morning was to aid in our hunt for the Crested Quail-Dove along Woodside Drive in the Port Royal Range of the Blue Mountains. While we heard this bird taunting us from the forest, he never came out for a good view. We did have our first great looks at the elusive White-eyed Thrush. In the forest we also saw the Rufous-throated Solitaire with its beautiful sounds and the relatively plain, but endemic Blue Mountain Vireo. Sometimes the toughest endemic, the Jamaican Blackbird was very cooperative this year. Passing over the road and sitting on bare branches, it let us all peruse this odd forest blackbird. Arrowhead Warblers were seen a few times, allowing us to log another endemic. The weather was not on our side this day; only occasionally could we see more than 100 feet. The vistas of the Blue Mountains were of fog, drizzle, and clouds. One highlight was certainly the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo that came in and sat 20 minutes for scope views until the rain ran us off.
Our final day of birding took us to the John Crow Mountains and the far eastern end of the island. Our morning stroll on Ecclesdown Road netted us looks at the Black-billed Streamertail, more blackbirds and becards, and our first perched views of the Jamaican Crow, appropriately nicknamed Jabbering Crow. We also enjoyed nice views of Ring-tailed Pigeons. Again the Crested Quail-Dove called for us but wouldn't reveal itself. For lunch we dined on Jamaican jerk. The epitome of Jamaican, we dined in the birthplace of jerk, Boston. An Allspice wood fire is critical, as is the array of spices to season the chicken or pork perfectly. Along the coast during our return to Kingston we watched graceful White-tailed Tropicbirds come and go from sea cliffs below Hector's River.
Back in Kingston we gathered for one final dinner to revel in our great avian finds and Jamaican experience. Brandon Hay and I thank you for choosing to travel to Jamaica with VENT.