My wife and I spent from November 5-November 10, 2006 in Jamaica. The trip was a combined relaxing vacation with several excursions to try and find the Jamaican endemics.
Rocklands Bird Feeding Station
Blue Mountains (near Newcastle)
Crystal Springs Gardens
November 5: We departed Atlanta on Delta Airlines and arrived in Montego Bay at 12:50. It took us 40 minutes to get through customs. We then picked up our Rental Car at Budget and went to Rocklands Bird Feeding Station. After Rocklands, we drove to Falmouth.
November 6: We drove from Falmouth to Windsor Cave and birded the Windsor Cave area for the morning. We then drove back to Montego Bay airport, dropped off the rental car, and picked up the shuttle from the airport to Couples Sans Souci Resort. Couples Resorts (and the other resorts) have waiting areas inside the airport for their arriving visitors. Unfortunately, once you leave the airport, you are not allowed to enter this (air-conditioned) area of the airport again (unless you had just arrived that day). Thus, we had to wait over 1 hour outside for our shuttle to the resort.
November 7: Day at the resort with minimal birding around the pond/marshy area and roadside. Budget Rental Cars in Ocho Rios delivered us a rental car at the resort at 4:30pm. The Budget Rental office is open from 8am – 5pm in Ocho Rios and will deliver a car to your resort for no additional charge.
November 8: Early departure (before 4am) from the resort to Buff Bay and the Blue Mountains. Birded the Blue Mountains north of Newcastle and Crystal Springs Gardens (near Buff Bay). We returned the car to Budget just before they closed at 5pm.
November 9: Only birding for the day was spent looking for Jamaica Owl.
November 10: Depart from Montego Bay to Atlanta on Delta Airlines.
Jamaica has a large tourist industry. However, most of the tourists come to Jamaica on some type of package trip that involves transportation to and from a resort. Few tourists rent a car and drive on their own. Thus, the country is not the easiest to “self” tour, but we got around on our own with very little difficulty. We found the people very friendly and helpful. I had one instance where I was concerned about my safety, and I probably simply misjudged the situation. I designed the trip to have a chance for all the endemics and several of the near endemics (Caribbean specialties) that I had not previously seen. I saw all of my targeted near-endemics and all but one of the endemics (missed Crested Quail Dove) so I was very happy with the trip.
Birds and Reference material:
Jamaica has 28 endemic species (30 if you count Jamaican Potoo and Jamaican Parakeet which many people have split). There are an additional 14 near endemics that occur on the island that many people try for. You can expect to see all of the endemics in 3-4 days of birding. The most difficult species appear to be Northern (Jamaican) Potoo, Jamaican Owl (???), Crested Quail Dove and Jamaican Blackbird.
Field Guide: We used the “Birds of the West Indies” by Herbert Raffaele, et al. and Princeton Field Guides. It adequately depicts the expected species.
Bird Vocalizations: We also had the CD, “Bird Songs in Jamaica” by George B. Reynard and Robert L. Sutton. It has the calls of 119 species including all of interest in Jamaica. We downloaded the CD to our MP3 player and brought a small speaker so that we could tape in species. This proved critical to our success. I avoided playing tape in areas that were heavily birded (Rocklands) but used it extensively in areas (Crystal Springs Gardens) that do not get many (any?) birders. If you are on your own and with limited time, it is probably imperative to use tape to located all the endemics.
We were self guided for the entire trip except for the stop at Rocklands. The Rocklands caretaker (Fritz) is a very good guide and knows the vocalizations of the species and their location on the property. He is expensive but our only Jamaican Pewee and Northern (Jamaican) Potoo were seen purely with his guidance.
Timing of the trip:
November is not the ideal time to go to Jamaica. It is during the rainy season and birds are generally quiet. Most birders go sometime from February – May. This is also the high time for the tourist season. However, we were going to be in Auburn, Alabama on Saturday, November 4 and Saturday, November 11, thus we decided that we would fly from Atlanta to Jamaica for the period between these two dates. November is the low season for Jamaica and the resort had a very, discounted rate. I knew that we could probably get all the endemics and still have several days of vacation at the resort. Thus, we decided on Jamaica.
Driving is on the left side of the road and most of the vehicles have the steering wheel on the right side of the car. There was considerable construction on the main roads while we were there, and traffic was a significant problem. We averaged about 40km/hour on the main highways. There were many areas on the road from Montego Bay to Buff Bay that were one lane due to the construction. Also, many of the roads had large potholes and you have to pay very close attention to avoid hitting them. I drove both at night and in the morning before dawn without any problems. In fact, driving before dawn was easiest because there was very little traffic on the road. Be aware that all Jamaican drivers believe that they have the right of way regardless of the situation. Road signs are mostly absent.
We rented cars from Budget Rental Car. We paid US $57/day. In Montego Bay, the rental car counter for Budget is in the airport (as you exit customs, look to the right). In Ocho Rios, the rental car office is on the west end of the town (address 15 MILFORD Road). Milford Road exists south from the main highway shortly after you enter the town of Ocho Rios (from the west). There is a sign for the Budget office at the turn. The Ocho Rios Budget Rental office is open from 8am – 5pm and will deliver a car to your resort for no additional charge. Many people have recommended Dhana Car Rentals and Tours (http://www.mobay.com/) as a reliable and less-expensive rental car option but they do not offer one day rentals.
I used the ESSO map which has been recommended by others. I bought if for 60 Jamaican dollars at the ESSO station that is about 6 km east of the Montego Bay airport on A1.
We never exchanged any money. We either used a VISA credit card or prepaid (although we did make some tips with US money). Jamaica has their own currency. At the time of our visit, they were giving me an exchange rate of 60 Jamaican dollars for 1 US dollar. Prices were most often quoted in US dollars. If you are traveling around the country, it probably would be wise to exchange some money but we never had the need for such. I am aware of some places that only accept cash. However, most people will take US dollars.
Falmouth: We stayed at Rose’s By the Sea Fisherman’s Inn. I think it is most commonly known simply as “Fisherman’s Inn”. It was reasonable with good food. Phone: 876-954-3427 and Fax: 876-954-4078. They had 12 rooms and were empty when we arrived. I assume that having reservations is unnecessary in the low season but may be required in high season.
Ocho Rios: Couples Sans Souci Resort (http://www.couples.com/14cs/index.html) This resort is very nice and expensive. It is all-inclusive and located on the beach. For those looking for a quiet, very nice vacation with a significant other, I would recommend it. For those looking for a place to stay while doing hard days of birding in the field, it is probably not the place for you.
Rocklands feeding Station (directions from the airport): As you are exiting the airport, you will come to a traffic circle (it at least functions as a traffic circle despite it not being a real circle). At the traffic “circle”, you will want to go southeast (right) on A1. However, you have two options to go southeast and you will want to take the left option. You will want to stay to the left and go through a somewhat elevated section of Montego Bay (this is Queen’s Drive). As you drop down from this elevated section of Montego Bay, you will see a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Go past the KFC (it will be on your left) and start counting stop lights. At the fourth stop light, turn left. Now go until you come to a T-intersection (there is a stoplight at the T-intersection) and turn right. This is still the A1. Drive along the A1 (Mangrove/swamp on your right) until you see a sign pointing to the left (south) for Anchovy. There is a stoplight here and you will want to turn left onto B8 and head towards Anchovy. The turn onto B8 is just as you enter the town of Reading. Go south on B8 for 3.5 km into the town of Wiltshire. The unpaved road to Rocklands is at the south end of Wiltshire. This unpaved road goes east (left as you are heading south) from B8. It is signed for Rocklands Bird Feeding Station, but the sign is on the west side of B8. Turn left off of B8 and onto this unpaved road to Rocklands. The feeding station is about 1.2 km along the unpaved road from the turnoff of B8. The unpaved road quickly forks and you will take the right fork. The Rocklands feeding station is on the right hand side of the road and there is a small sign and gate. There is a small area to park opposite the entrance to the feeding station. The road is passable in a 2-wheel drive. The price was US $10 for sitting at the area and feeding the grassquits and hummingbirds. Fritz is available for additional guiding at an additional fee.
Falmouth: Falmouth is located along the north Jamaica coast. It is approximately 37 km east of Montego Bay. Take the A1 out of Montego Bay and after 37 km, you will see a sign for Falmouth to the left. This old road takes you through the center of Falmouth (which I would recommend avoiding if possible). The A1 actually bypasses the town of Falmouth. Fisherman’s Inn is on the east end of Falmouth. It is located right as the old road from Falmouth rejoins the A1. If you are going east along the A1 you could easily miss the Fisherman’s Inn as it is not well visible from this direction (so pay close attention). If you get to the Starfish resort (large hotel on the north coast), you have gone past Falmouth and Fisherman’s Inn. With the construction and a couple of stops, it took us just over 1 hour to go from Montego Bay to Falmouth.
Windsor Caves: I followed the directions provided by Gruff Dodd in his trip report. His directions are repeated here with my changes as thing have appeared to change since he was there in 2000. From Fisherman’s Inn in Falmouth, set your odometer at 0.0 and go to the A1 and turn right/west. (This is the highway to Montego Bay. Do not go west on the road directly in front of the Fisherman’s Inn as it will take you into the town of Falmouth). After 0.7 km turn left (south) from A1 (there is a bus stop at this turn). At 2.4 km you pass through the village of Hague (you will also see the A1 on your right). In the village, there are several turns to the south, but you want to stay straight. At 3.6 km a bridge goes over the river to Martha Brae (there was construction on the bridge when we were there). Do not go over the bridge but continue straight. You will then pass through Perth Town. At 9.2 km, you will come to a fork in the road and take the right hand fork. At 14.4 km you will come to a T-intersection in the small town of Sherwood Content. Turn right at this T-intersection. At 14.9 km take the left-hand fork. After 20.1 km you will reach another T-junction, and you should take the left fork (there was a sign for Windsor at this location). At 20.4 km, you will come to another T-intersection. There is a small shack at this T-intersection and you should park next to the shack (it is run by a man named Franklin and his name is painted on the shack). If you turn left and then left again, you will eventually end up at the Windsor House. Reportedly, you can stay there overnight (we did not go try). To reach the caves from where you parked the car, take the old road/trail that is next to Franklin’s shack. It will pass by a Water tower and some open fields before making a T-intersection at the forest. The right fork goes to the caves and the left fork goes through forest. It takes about 45 minutes from Falmouth to Windsor Caves. It can easily be done in a 2-wheel drive vehicle.
Blue Mountains (Newcastle): Most people (at least the smart ones) access the birding areas around Newcastle from Kingston. Although driving to Newcastle from Kingston has its own challenges, my route to Newcastle can not be recommended. Since, I was staying in Ocho Rios, it appeared that I could best access Newcastle via the road from Buff Bay. It took me 1 hour and 50 minutes to go from Ocho Rios to Buff Bay on the main highway. In the town of Buff Bay, a paved road goes south to Newcastle. This road is immediately east of the bridge over the river. Take this paved road south from Buff Bay. Newcastle is approximately 35 km south of Buff Bay. Unfortunately, when I tried this route, the road had been washed away in at least 2 places before you get to Newcastle (I was told that this was from heavy storms). These washouts occurred as the road was steeply climbing elevation via switchbacks. They were obviously working on the road and had repaired one location but were still working on the other and there was NO way to pass by car. However, I was told by locals of another way to get to Newcastle. If you head back the way you came from the washouts (towards Buff Bay) you will quickly see a small unpaved road that heads to the right (south). Take this road (stay to the right as there are some turns off this unpaved road to the left) and the road will eventually get you to Newcastle. I believe you need a 4-wheel drive to successfully navigate this unpaved road as I am not sure you could do it in a 2-wheel drive. There are several areas that are very steep.
Crystal Springs Gardens (809-929-4222): This “park/resort” appeared abandoned to me. It is reportedly a reliable location for Black-billed Streamertail. However, all I saw were Red-billed Streamertails and I had to go further east (along A4) for Black-billed. The park is several kilometers east of Buff Bay. Take Highway A4 east from Buff Bay and you will turn south on a paved road to Crystal Springs Gardens. There is a sign for Crystal Springs Gardens along Highway A4 but it is only viewable when you are driving west (it is not visible from the Buff Bay side). Once you turn south from A4, you will immediately cross the remains of a railroad track. Go 1.7 kilometers on this paved road and you will see an old road (grown over with grass) with a green gate and cement pillars. I parked on the road and walked through the gate and birded the area. There was no sign at the spot for Crystal Springs Gardens, but there was a very old sign with no writing on it. I assume this was the prior sign for Crystal Springs. I was told this was Crystal Springs Gardens by a local, but it may actually be somewhere else along this road. There were several planted, flowering bushes in the area, so I assume that was I was in the correct location.
Weather & Clothing:
We went during the end of the rainy season and we saw intermittent rain during our stay. The rain was primarily a problem late in the afternoon and early evening. The temperature was warm (85F) at all times, and it was very humid. I birded in shorts at all times (even in the Blue Mountains).
Mosquitoes were a problem in most places that we went. They were the worst at Windsor Cave. We brought 100% DEET which worked well. We never saw a snake. We had no problems with ticks. We saw plenty of hymenoptera but had no problems.
If you are planning a trip purely for birds and want to see all the endemics, you probably need at least two full days (preferably three) combined with the afternoon you arrive and the morning you depart. We were able to get all but one of the endemics in one afternoon, one morning, and one full day of birding and we skipped the Marshall’s Pen area. To see all the endemics, you must bird the east end of the island for Black-billed Streamertail (Bath Fountain or Mockingbird Hill Hotel in Port Antonio). The best locations (that I gleaned from prior trip reports) for the difficult endemics include the following (although I can not verify all as I did not visit all these sites):
Black-billed Parrot: Windsor Cave area
Jamaican Owl: see comments below on this species
Northern (Jamaican) Potoo: Rocklands
Crested Quail Dove: This is the one endemic we missed. The best locations appear to be trails/closed roads in the Newcastle area in the early morning, Marshall’s Pen, and the Windsor Cave trails. Fritz informed me that he had seen one for the last several months on his property (in fact, he had seen it the morning of the day that we visited).
White-eyed Thrush: Newcastle area, Marshalls Pen
Blue Mountain Vireo: Newcastle area, Burnt Hill
Jamaican Blackbird: Newcastle area (especially the area 1.3km north of Newcastle at a hairpin turn in the road).
Apparently, Jamaican Pewee and Jamaican Elaenia can also be difficult, although there are multiple locations for these two species.
Additionally, two non-endemics but Caribbean specialties, Rufous-throated Solitaire and Greater Antillean Elaenia are high elevation species best located in the Newcastle area.
Pied-billed Grebe: one in Ocho Rios
Brown Pelican: several along the north coast
Magnificent Frigatebird: several along the north coast
Great Blue Heron: several at various locations
Great Egret: common
Tricolored Heron: one in a small roadside pond near Falmouth
Little Blue Heron: common
Snowy Egret: several at various locations
Cattle Egret: very common
Green Heron: one in Ocho Rios
Black-crowned Night-Heron: several in Ocho Rios
Turkey Vulture: very common
Red-tailed Hawk: one in the Blue Mountains, one in Buff Bay and one near Falmouth
American Kestrel: common
Limpkin: one at Windsor Caves
Yellow-breasted Crake: one responding to tape in a wet field west of Annotto Bay
Common Moorhen: common in Ocho Rios
Black-necked Stilt: several along the roadside
Laughing Gull: several along the north coast
Royal Tern: common along the coast
Rock Pigeon: a few near Montego Bay
White-crowned Pigeon: common
Ring-tailed Pigeon: several at both Windsor Caves and the Blue Mountains
Zenaida Dove: several along the drive to Windsor Caves and our resort in Ocho Rios
Common Ground-Dove: common, multiple locations
Caribbean Dove: one at Rocklands
Olive-throated Parakeet (Jamaican Parakeet): Some authors split this species. We saw/heard several at multiple locations.
Green-rumped Parrotlet: Reportedly common but we only saw three.
Yellow-billed Parrot: Windsor Caves. We only positively identified a pair.
Black-billed Parrot: Windsor Caves. We began seeing/hearing parrots several kilometers prior to arriving at Windsor Caves. Although we were not able to identify all that we saw/heard, Black-billed were more common than Yellow-billed.
Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo: One seen at Windsor Caves and heard at Crystal Springs Gardens.
Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo: I had some trouble with this species and played a lot of tape before one responded and flew in at Crystal Springs Gardens.
Smooth-billed Ani: several along the north highway
Barn Owl: one flying over the road in the early morning around Annotto Bay.
Jamaican Owl: I located three with very little difficulty. One responded to tape in forest (east of Ocho Rios) and two responded to tape in Ocho Rios. One the morning of Nov. 8, I left Ocho Rios very early with the intention of playing Jamaican Owl tape in spots with suitable habitat. I had one respond to tape at the first place I stopped east of Ocho Rios. Unfortunately, I left my flashlight at our resort. Thus, I gave up on owling for the rest of the day. However, on Nov. 9, I tried in Ocho Rios. I walked across the highway from our resort down a paved road (immediately opposite the entrance to Couples Sans Souci Resort). I walked <100 meters down this road (before the first streetlight) and had two owls respond to tape and was able to see one as it flew across the road and perched along the side of this road. Most people report this species from the Sutton’s home in Marshall’s Pen but based on my experience the species seemed very easy in the Ocho Rios area. I would guess that playing tape in any suitable habitat would be successful (the species occurs from the coast to foothills and is reportedly absent from high elevations). Fritz informed me that Jamaican Owls are present on the property at Rocklands, and I read at least one trip report that successfully saw the species at Rocklands. We, however, did not try while at Rocklands.
Northern Potoo (Jamaican Potoo): One was seen at Rocklands. Fritz (the Rocklands guide) took us to a day roost and this impressive bird was seen well. Rocklands is an apparently very reliable location for the species and the main reason to go to this location (beyond the hummingbird show).
White-collared Swift: common in Buff Bay/Crystal Springs
Antillean Palm-Swift: common in Ocho Rios
Jamaican Mango: common, will perch on your finger at Rocklands
Red-billed Streamertail: common, will perch on your finger at Rocklands
Black-billed Streamertail: this species is only located at the far eastern edge of the island. It is reported to occur at Crystal Springs Gardens but all I saw were Red-billed Streamertails. I was successful, however, several kilometers east of this area.
Vervain Hummingbird: along the road to Windsor Caves and in the Blue Mountains
Belted Kingfisher: several at various locations
Jamaican Tody: Rocklands, Windsor Cave, Blue Mountains, and Crystal Springs Gardens
Jamaican Woodpecker: Rocklands, Windsor Cave, Blue Mountains, and Crystal Springs Gardens
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: one at Rocklands
Jamaican Elaenia: one at Windsor Caves
Greater Antillean Elaenia: a pair responding to tape in the Blue Mountains, north of Newcastle
Jamaican Pewee: one at Rocklands. Fritz took us directly to a reliable location (he had heard it there earlier in the day).
Sad Flycatcher: Rocklands, Windsor Cave, and Blue Mountains
Rufous-tailed Flycatcher: Rocklands, and Crystal Springs Gardens
Stolid Flycatcher: Crystal Springs Gardens
Loggerhead Kingbird: Common
Jamaican Becard: Male at Crystal Springs Gardens, responded to tape.
Northern Mockingbird: Common
Rufous-throated Solitaire: Three birds in the Blue Mountains. One bird was in immature plumage.
White-eyed Thrush: a pair responding to tape in the Blue Mountains, north of Newcastle
White-chinned Thrush: Rocklands, Windsor Cave, Blue Mountains, and Crystal Springs Gardens
Jamaican Crow: Rocklands and Windsor Cave
Jamaican Vireo: Rocklands, Windsor Cave, Blue Mountains
Blue Mountain Vireo: one responding to tape in the Blue Mountains
Northern Parula: near Buff Bay and in Crystal Springs Gardens
Black-throated Blue Warbler: common
Prairie Warbler: Along road between Buff Bay and Newcastle
Arrow-headed Warbler: one at Rocklands and one at Crystal Springs Gardens
Black-and-white Warbler: Windsor Caves, Blue Mountains, and Crystal Springs Gardens
American Redstart: common
Worm-eating Warbler: one at Windsor Caves
Ovenbird: Rocklands, Windsor Caves, and Blue Mountains
Louisiana Waterthrush: one on the road to Windsor Caves
Common Yellowthroat: Blue Mountains and Ocho Rios
Jamaican Spindalis: Rocklands, Blue Mountains, and Crystal Springs
Jamaican Euphonia: A pair at Rocklands
Yellow-faced Grassquit: common, will feed from your hand at Rocklands
Black-faced Grassquit: slightly less common than the above species but still easily seen and will also eat from your hand at Rocklands
Yellow-shouldered Grassquit: One in the Blue Mountains, north of Newcastle and two at Crystal Springs
Greater Antillean Bullfinch: a pair at Windsor Caves and one in the Blue Mountains
Rose-breasted Grosbeak: one female, well seen at Crystal Springs Gardens
Jamaican Blackbird: a pair, responded to tape in the Blue Mountains, north of Newcastle
Greater Antillean Grackle: Common
Jamaican Oriole: two at Rocklands and one at Crystal Springs Gardens