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Jamaica - March 15-22, 2009
Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Suzie and Charlie Burbury
I spent six days birding in Jamaica with my brother Ian Jones and friend Simon Gawn. Our goal was to see the island’s 28 endemic species, birds that occur in Jamaica and nowhere else. We saw them all and more generally had a great trip. We did not anticipate the extraordinary friendliness of the people or the soaring expanses of mountain terrain. Our total list was 121 including eight additional Caribbean endemics and seventeen wintering North American warblers.
Jamaica is an island in the Caribbean 145 kilometres south of Cuba and 190 kilometres west of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It runs 235 kilometres east-west, 80 kilometres north-south and has a population of about 2.8 million people. Most of the country is hilly; the Blue and John Crow mountains dominate the island’s east, rising 2250 metres from the sea.
Weather - Jamaica’s dry season is December through April. During our March visit we only encountered significant rainfall once, on our trek through Portland Gap high in the Blue Mountains. Otherwise it was mainly sunny in the morning with cloud cover building through the afternoon. The lowlands were warm but never above 30 degrees Celsius. Portland Gap, our highest elevation at 1600 metres, was cold at dawn and a fleece and rain jacket were necessary. At our accommodations in the hills east of Kingston (Lime Tree Farm - 1050 metres) the evenings were a cool 20 so a fleece was again good to have.
Flights and Customs - Air Jamaica took us from Toronto to Kingston, Jamaica without delay; a four hour flight. The customs officers were friendly and efficient but they insisted on specific details about where we were staying. Identifying the establishment and nearest town was not enough, the parish name was needed too. For smooth transit through these formalities, travelers should have on hand a printout of the full addresses of their accommodations.
On the Ground - We were met outside the airport’s main door by our transfer driver who was holding a printed sign for our first accommodations and, without prompting, identified our names as his passengers. From the airport we travelled as far into the Blue Mountains as the mini-bus would take us. We then switched to a 4X4 SUV for the final leg of the journey to the high country village of Lime Tree. After our stay in the mountains a series of different transfers shuttled us to the north-east coast and back to Kingston.
A good number of visiting birders rent their own vehicles and explore the island independently. We went with hired drivers and, given the country’s right hand drive vehicles, minimal signage and twisting mountain tracks, this was a decision we were happy with. Although many of the roads are paved and modern a 4X4 would be a good idea if you do rent. Conditions can be a bit rough once you get into the hills.
Money - Jamaican dollars are the local currency (April 2009: 1 CAD = 71 JMD, 1 USD = 88, 1 GBP = 128, 1 EUR = 120). We picked up our initial supply at the Toronto Airport and more as needed from ATMs on the island. U.S. dollars are accepted at some locations.
Health and Safety - Anti-malarials are typically not prescribed for the island, but it is always wise to talk with a travel medicine clinic before any international trip. Dengue Fever, a mosquito-borne disease found throughout the tropics, is present though rare. We wore long-sleeved shirts and long pants and always had DEET-based repellent on hand. We encountered very few mosquitoes and no ticks or chiggers. We drank only bottled or mountain spring water and suffered no food related illness. There are no poisonous snakes on the island.
Violence is a particular concern in Jamaica if you belong to a drug gang or live in a low-income neighbourhood in Kingston. We had no problems. The rural areas we birded felt safe. Our presence in small farming communities always elicited a friendly greeting and, when requested, polite assistance with bird-finding.
Literature and Equipment - A “Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies” by Herbert Raffaele et al (paperback, 216 pages) is an excellent, lightweight resource. It is a stripped down version of the much larger “Birds of the West Indies” (hardcover, 511 pages) by the same authors. The key trip report is Gruff Dodd’s: www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/jamaica/jamaica2/jamgrdo.htm
“Birds Songs in Jamaica”, a CD by Maynard and Sutton, contains a comprehensive selection of tracks. I loaded the main vocalizations onto an iPod after using Apple’s “Garage Band” program to strip the narration. Radio Shack’s small and powerful “Mini Audio Amplifier” (Model: 277-1008, $14.99) is the perfect playback speaker, although the only birds we actually needed to call in were Jamaican Owl and Bahama Mockingbird. We did not bring a telescope; there were no misses as a result but one would have been nice for a few species, especially the parrots.
Target Birds - Jamaica has 28 endemics and fourteen birds whose ranges are confined to the larger Caribbean. There are also easily gettable White-tailed Tropicbirds and, in the winter, good numbers of migrant North American wood warblers.
The 28 Jamaican Endemics are Ring-tailed Pigeon, Crested Quail-Dove, Yellow-billed Parrot, Black-billed Parrot, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Jamaican Owl, Jamaican Mango, Red-billed Streamertail, Black-billed Streamertail, Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Becard, Jamaican Elaenia, Jamaican Pewee, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Jamaican Vireo, Blue Mountain Vireo, Jamaican Crow, White-chinned Thrush, White-eyed Thrush, Arrowhead Warbler, Jamaican Blackbird, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, Orangequit, Jamaican Spindalis and Jamaican Euphonia. The Caribbean form of Northern Potoo and the Jamaican form of Olive-throated Parakeet may someday attain species status. The most recent iteration of the AOU checklist has demoted Black-billed Streamertail to sub-species.
Visiting birders have a good chance at all the endemics; a week is a reasonable amount of time to search for them. On day one we picked up Ring-tailed Pigeon, Red-billed Streamertail, the tody, woodpecker, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Jamaican Vireo, the thrushes, Orangequit, spindalis and euphonia without too much trouble. The cuckoos, becard, elaenia, pewee, warbler and grassquit needed a bit more work, especially the flycatchers. Crested Quail-Dove, Blue Mountain Vireo and Jamaican Blackbird benefited from special visits to the high country. We found good numbers of the parrots, crow and Black-billed Streamertail, but only at specific sites in the eastern edge of the country. Jamaican Mango was surprisingly difficult.
The fourteen Caribbean Endemics on Jamaica are West Indian Whistling-Duck, Plain Pigeon, Antillean Nighthawk, Antillean Palm Swift, Vervain Hummingbird, Greater Antillean Elaenia, Stolid Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Caribbean Martin, Bahama Mockingbird, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Greater Antillean Grackle and Jamaican Oriole. Caribbean Dove and Caribbean Coot are also present. Despite their names these two are not strictly confined to the Caribbean but they do have restricted ranges and the island is a good place to look for them. Of the Caribbean specialties, Plain Pigeon and Greater Antillean Elaenia are quite tricky and the nighthawk and martin are southern migrants.
Birding Time - Jamaica’s dry season runs December to April, which corresponds with the northern winter, making this a nice time to visit. Within this slot March/April is particularly good because the endemics are actively singing, wintering North American warblers are still present and southern migrants Antillean Nighthawk, Gray Kingbird, Caribbean Martin and Black-whiskered Vireo are starting to arrive. During our March 15-22 visit the resident birds were very vocal and excellent numbers of wintering warblers were around. Of the southern migrants we saw the kingbird and vireo. Maybe we were a bit early for the nighthawk and martin.
To reach birding areas at dawn we had to get up early each day, usually between five and five-thirty. Otherwise our expedition was fairly relaxed; most of our work was done beside the vehicle or on hikes along level or gently rising, well-maintained trails and country lanes. The only real physical exertion was the hike through Portland Gap high in the Blue Mountains and even that was not terribly challenging.
Travel Arrangements and Guides - The doyen of Jamaican birding and a prominent figure in Caribbean conservation efforts is Ann Sutton. Operating out of Marshall's Pen (a private nature reserve near Mandeville) with highly-rated guide Brandon Hay, Ann can arrange bird tours. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We turned to Shireen Aga at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill. She answered emails immediately and worked efficiently with us to arrange an itinerary that unfolded without a hitch and resulted in a great visit to the island (email@example.com and www.hotelmockingbirdhill.com). Wayne Murdoch of Attraction Link Limited can also arrange tours, including ones for budget-conscious travelers. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Charlie Burbury is the man to contact (email@example.com) for independent travelers who want to take a day trip to Portland Gap or stay at the wonderful Lime Tree Farm in the Blue Mountains.
Ryan Love, a warden with Jamaica’s park service was our main birding guide. He knows the sites, the birds and their vocalizations, and, as with all the guides we worked with, is great company. Roger Thompson, also a park warden, guided us one morning. He is younger and has a basic but growing knowledge of birds. Ricardo Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org), an official with the National Environmental Planning Agency, guided us in the Kingston area. He led us to Bahama Mockingbird and several key wetland sites and went out of his way to make us feel comfortable in the big city. All these people were excited to have birders visiting Jamaica and very keen to ensure we connected with all the target species.
Itinerary - A number of Jamaica’s endemics occur widely across the island but to see them all it is necessary to visit areas of intact mountain and mid-level forest. A visit to dry forest/scrub is required for Caribbean specialties Stolid Flycatcher and Bahama Mockingbird.
To explore the high country we stayed three nights in the Blue Mountains at Lime Tree Farm near Mavis Bank north-east of Kingston. Lower forest was covered from Hotel Mockingbird Hill near Port Antonio on the north coast. To sample the dry country we spent one morning just west of Kingston in the aptly named Hellshire Hills. These sites are all in the eastern quarter of the island, which minimizes driving distances. Alternative places include dry forest at Portland Ridge to the west of the Hellshire Hills and mid-level forest to the northwest of Kingston at Marshall’s Pen and Cockpit Country. The Rockland's Bird Sanctuary on the western tip of the island is accessible to vacationers out of Montego Bay.
ONE - HIGH COUNTRY FROM THE LIME TREE FARM -The Lime Tree Farm www.limetreefarm.com/ is a small working coffee plantation near Mavis Bank in the southern approaches to the Blue Mountains. An hour and half drive from the international airport, the farm offers a spectacular vista, tranquil surroundings and three very comfortable, roomy guest cottages. Charlie and Suzie Burbury were our gracious hosts; we felt immediately at home. Charlie knows the island well and is a great driver. Suzie’s cooking is fantastic – we had savoury pumpkin and calaloo soups with fresh biscuits, Jamaican patties, chicken curry, chicken stew, jerk pork, sausage, seared snapper, grilled lobster and excellent green salads. The dining area is a large, homey, semi-enclosed room off the kitchen; it also serves as a great place to chat, have a beer and work on the day’s notes. From the farm we birded:
Lime Tree - Agriculture has reached 1500 metres on the southern slopes of the Blue Mountains; much of the area around the village of Lime Tree is grassy hill savannah with patches of low-intensity market gardening and small-scale coffee cultivation. There are still isolated pockets of forest and these hold a fair number of birds. From the farm we hiked down a ten-minute switchback path through coffee and scattered trees to the road and then looped back up to the cottages on a longer stroll by way of the village. Jamaican Woodpecker, Sad Flycatcher, Black-faced Grassquit, Jamaican Euphonia, Orangequit, Jamaican Spindalis, Black-throated Blue Warbler, American Redstart and Ovenbird were some of the species we encountered. Red-billed Streamertail, Jamaica’s national bird and a spectacular hummer, were common; sharing the flowers around the farm with tiny Vervain Hummingbirds. A Rufous-throated Solitaire could be heard in the distance in the evening and at night we saw a Barn Owl just outside the cottages. Charlie indicated Jamaican Owls are occasionally around.
The Cinchona (pronounced “sin-cone-ah”) Botanical Gardens, set north of Mavis Bank at 1500 metres, are an elegantly fading reminder of colonial Britain. The flower beds, shrubs and hedges are still carefully tended; the outbuildings are in a state of maintained decline. After a winding, vertiginous, but fun 45 minute drive from Lime Tree we arrived at first light. Through the mist we could hear the signature whirr of streamertails. As the sun rose we realized the flowering shrubs and low trees were packed with birds. Despite its altitude and remoteness, Cinchona is still an island of forest amongst the grassy slopes and this probably accounts for the abundant avifauna. Highlights included Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Becard, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, White-eyed Thrush, Arrowhead Warbler, Jamaican Oriole, Greater Antillean Bullfinch and Yellow-shouldered Grassquit. Good numbers of North American warblers were present and we also found a Lincoln’s Sparrow, a scarce bird on the island. Antillean Palm-Swifts and White-collared Swifts raced overhead. We birded the gardens by looping slowly around the well-maintained paths. Off the back corner a somewhat wilder trail runs through a stand of untended trees and this is where we heard and then saw Rufous-throated Solitaire. By mid-morning the sun was shining brightly and before heading out we enjoyed a picnic brunch of fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs and ham, cheese and cucumber sandwiches. Cinchona is an excellent location to receive an introduction to Jamaican birds and obtain bird photographs.
Portland Gap - “Gap” is a term to describe a pass, break or dip in a mountain chain where a trail can be pushed through. Portland Gap (1600 metres) is just below the highest peak in the Blue Mountains. We explored this area of remote, mature forest on March 17th; our goal was to see the Mountain Witch (Crested Quail-Dove) and Wild Pine Sergeant (Jamaican Blackbird), coveted island endemics. After a very early start we proceeded through Mavis Bank, crossed the Yallahs River and began the uphill drive. Most travelers to Portland Gap begin the long hike at Whitfield Hall. Our bird guide Ryan Love had authority to open higher gates through privately owned land so we pounded up the grassy slopes past Abbey Green in a two-door, short wheel-base, 4X4 Suzuki Vitara. When the track became impassible by vehicle we parked and set out on foot.
The first light of dawn lit up the hills to our south but it was windy and cool where we were. Ahead, the trail curved along the edge of a steep valley into a cloudbank and the shelter of actual forest. As the canopy and mist gradually closed in we had our first good bird, a Swainson’s Warbler feeding on the path. Continuing on, the trees became burdened with bromeliads (wild pines), epiphytes and hanging moss - ideal Jamaican Blackbird habitat. When we reached a large metal sign on the left of the path, Ryan signaled us to stop and indicated a blackbird was calling from the slope above. We listened; it called closer and suddenly was visible right beside us. We watched it for a long time as it foraged in the bromeliads. This was the first of six blackbirds we would see between the sign and the end of the gap, all feeding conspicuously and unconcernedly at very close range. The trail presents particularly good Jamaican Blackbird viewing opportunities because the land drops quickly away to the side, meaning parts of the canopy are at or near eye level just five to ten metres distant. Taping was not necessary.
On the level ground in the gap’s middle there is a ranger station where we stopped to shelter from a wave of rain and eat our breakfast. When the precipitation diminished we resumed walking and a little ways past the station we began to hear Crested-Quail Doves calling from the slopes above and below us. One sounded close in front where the trail begins to climb rapidly into sparse, bird-poor cloud forest. Approaching slowly, we were able to observe the beautiful bird through the mist as it perched low in a tree. Another dove, perhaps its mate, sat near by. Satisfied, we began our descent and eventually exited from the cloud and rain. Back in the sunshine we encountered groups of Ring-tailed Pigeon perching beside the track, flying across the valley and feeding in the fields below. On our return to Lime Tree we stopped in at Jah B’s Guest House to purchase packages of Blue Mountain Coffee to take back home as gifts. The recipients, coffee connoisseurs, subsequently affirmed the beans as among the finest in the world.
Hardwar (pronounced “hardware”) Gap is a more accessible, though less striking, location to explore the Blue Mountains’ high country forest. The area is birded along the winding, paved road that runs up from the village of Section to the summit at Holywell and then descends down into Kingston past the Gap Café and the military base at Newcastle. The forest near the summit has been battered by hurricanes; cleared farmland and settlement encroaches up to the road edge on the ascent. Still, significant areas of good forest remain and, along with the lush gardens around the houses, they are very birdy. Car traffic was light but steady on the morning of our visit.
In the tall trees just above Section we had the first of two Jamaican Blackbirds. As we climbed higher we heard and saw three Jamaican Pewees in scrubbier roadside forest, our only good sightings of the trip. We also had the first of many Jamaican Vireos, a kinglet-like bird with an extensive song repertoire including caroling runs and musical trills. Ryan Love then keyed us into the more subdued trill of Blue Mountain Vireo and we quickly got on to this great bird feeding low and slowly in roadside vegetation. We were able to see ten over the course of the morning. Jamaican Elaenia was Ryan’s next find, our trip’s only encounter with this obscure species. Over the summit just past the Gap Café a steep paved side road descends to the right. Along this road we had excellent views of Rufous-throated Solitaire and three Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. We did not see any Crested Quail-Dove.
TWO - EASTERN JAMAICA FROM HOTEL MOCKINGBIRD HILL - Hotel Mockingbird Hill is an internationally renowned, upscale boutique establishment on Jamaica’s north-east coast. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, there is a pool and a covered veranda/bar overlooking a beautiful, bird-filled garden and, in the near distance, the sea and town of Port Antonio. The food is overwhelmingly good; five course Caribbean-European fusion meals with mains such as skewered shrimp, grilled Mahi-Mahi, filet mignon and an irresistible dessert selection. Shireen Aga and Barbara Walker are the owners and they are very focused on making sure everything runs efficiently but are very sweet once you get to know them. They have worked hard to make Jamaica a birding destination and to promote eco-tourism and environmentalism within the country; including reforestation projects and efforts to protect critical habitat in the John Crow Mountains along the nearby Ecclesdown Road. From the hotel we birded:
Mockingbird Hill - The hotel’s extensive garden includes carefully tended and wilder areas and, with Cinchona, was one of the birdiest sites we encountered - testimony to Shireen and Barbara’s landscaping efforts. The garden, befitting the establishment’s reputation as a romantic getaway, is dove heaven. We had studying views of seven species: White-crowned Pigeon, Ring-tailed Pigeon, Zenaida Dove, White-winged Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Caribbean Dove and Ruddy Quail-Dove. Wintering Parulidae included the ubiquitous Black-throated Blue Warbler and American Redstart as well as Worm-eating, Prairie and Yellow-rumped Warbler. The flowering shrubs attracted Black-billed Streamertail and the treed sections held both Chestnut-bellied and Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo. At night a Jamaican Owl called from the surrounding forest. Non-guest birders are welcome on the grounds if they say hi at the registration desk first; visitors might also want to order a drink from the bar or a meal from the restaurant. The larger Mockingbird Hill area mixes low density housing, small woodlots and extensive gardens, very birdy habitat.
Ecclesdown Road loops off the coastal highway just before Long Bay and runs through the eastern edge of the John Crow Mountains, re-emerging by the sea near Manchioneal. Cleared and semi-cleared agricultural land encroaches into the forest at each end, but a good portion of the route passes through intact habitat. In some places the canopy closes overhead, other areas provide an open view of the forested slopes. Key birds here are Crested Quail-Dove, Yellow-billed Parrot, Black-billed Parrot, Jamaican Crow and Jamaican Blackbird.
Driving from the north, our first stop was at a pull-off on the left where the cultivated land ends and the road abruptly curves to the right. In the half-light of dawn we quietly rounded the corner to see a Crested Quail Dove bobbing along the middle of the track. As we watched it in silence a farmer walking down the road with a ratchet at his waist came up behind us. He graciously waited while we studied the bird and then, after the Dove had wandered off, chatted with us about the forest. Continuing our walk, we began to listen for the calls of the parrots and crow. Our bus driver, Wayne Murdoch, turned out to have an extensive knowledge of birding in the area and explained that the parrots were most active not at first light but a little later between eight and ten. By seven-thirty we began to hear parrots squawking from the surrounding hills and by quarter past eight had decent looks at both species. Jamaican Crow was a bit trickier. We heard several calling close by but could not see them. Finally, as we neared the end of the good habitat they began to stream out overhead from a roost above and to the left of the road, 25 in all. Other birds included one each of Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Becard, Blue Mountain Vireo and Jamaican Blackbird.
Ecclesdown Road is a great birding walk and, after Portland Gap, was the best habitat we encountered in Jamaica. I can still hear the bubbling calls of the crows and see small flocks of parrots wheeling by in the morning sun.
Hector’s River - Past Port Antonio the coastal highway is particularly scenic, wending by sandy coves, rocky headlands, small villages, coconut groves and historic churches. Near the community of Hector’s River there is a White-tailed Tropicbird colony at the end of a long rocky promontory. The site is plainly visible from the road although if you are coming from the north you have to drive past it and then look back before you can see it. On March 20th, after a brief return trip to Ecclesdown Road, we drove to Hector’s River, carefully pulled over at the edge of a low seaside cliff and scanned the bay back towards the point. Within minutes we were able to see a total of fourteen tropicbirds flying in the near distance over the sea, some of them engaging in graceful flight display. The birds are present March through June and are best seen between six and eight in the morning, after which time they disappear into their nest crevices or back to sea.
THREE - HELLSHIRE HILLS - A visit to dry forest is necessary to see Bahama Mockingbird and Stolid Flycatcher, both of which are Caribbean endemics. We sampled this habitat in the Hellshire Hills just west of Kingston. To do so we left Port Antonio well before dawn and rendezvoused with bird guide Ricardo Miller on the edge of Kingston at seven thirty in the morning. From there we headed west towards the coast and the Two Sisters Cave, drove through a housing development and then briefly followed the paved road as it curved away from the coast. At the point where the pavement ends (17°52'52.18"N, 76°54'28.93"W) we parked and set out on a sand/gravel track through the arid, inhospitable scrubland.
We quickly saw Northern Mockingbird and Stolid Flycatcher. Continuing on for about a kilometre we passed a beach and reached an area of slightly denser vegetation. Ironically, the biggest obstacle we encountered in this dry land was large puddles in the road. To bypass them we had to push our way through the surrounding thorn thickets. At approximately 17°52'12.59"N, 76°54'42.10"W we heard a Mimid singing in the distance and played the Bahama Mockingbird track. Almost immediately one appeared at our feet out of the tangles. Other birds in the area included numerous Yellow Warblers and three Jamaican Mangos. After struggling with the hummingbird for most of the trip it was good to finally have a chance to study this species. The Hellshire Hills are dry, hot and thorn-filled so be sure to cover up, wear sturdy footwear, have water, sun screen and a sun hat before venturing in.
FOUR - WETLANDS FROM KINGSTON - With our targets seen we elected to spend our final morning hours in Jamaica at a few wetlands sites around Kingston; a habitat we had not yet sampled:
Portmore Water Treatment Works (Kingston Sewage Works) - On the western edge of Kingston there is an impressive series of sewage lagoons; the entrance gate is at approximately 17°55'51.27"N, 76°53'58.98"W. Ricardo led us around the works and we were able to pad our list with a few wetland birds including Little Blue and Tri-coloured Heron, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Northern Jacana, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. A basic plumage, introduced but countable Yellow-crowned Bishop allowed close study in a reed patch. Somewhat more exciting, a hidden three metre Jamaican Crocodile launched itself into the water as we approached. We did not see any ducks at the lagoons; Ricardo noted that the ponds had just been cleared of all emergent vegetation.
Mandela Highway Ponds - Mandela Highway is the main route leading west out of Kingston. Shortly after it parts from Washington Boulevard there is a relatively intact wetland on the south side of the road (18° 1'31.62"N, 76°52'5.57"W). Under Ricardo’s direction we pulled over on the wide shoulder and scanned the waterfowl present at the site. In addition to Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon and Northern Shoveler there was also a cooperative selection of coots; both Caribbean and American.
Hope Botanical Gardens - We paid a brief early afternoon visit to this site on the east side of the City near Papine (18° 1'23.86"N, 76°44'55.35"W). It was the heat of the day and bird activity was correspondingly slow but in the smallish ornamental pond we did see Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricoloured Heron and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Among the water lotus leaves we picked out one Least Grebe at very close range. Masked Duck sometimes appear here as well.
Airport/Port Royal Causeway - From Kingston’s east side the Norman Manley Highway follows a narrow strip of land to the international airport and the community of Port Royal. Ricardo led us on a late afternoon drive to the causeway to search for shorebirds and we were able to see Semipalmated Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling and Least Sandpiper along the gravel shore. At a small roadside park we checked an area of scrubby vegetation and low forest and quickly found our only Gray Kingbirds of the trip. We also had Northern and Louisiana Waterthrush and a beautiful male Prothonotory Warbler. The birds may have been part of a fall out of northbound migrants; the causeway’s location seems conducive to bringing birds in off the sea. A little farther down the road as the light began to fade we did a walk-through of the overgrown and crumbling Port Royal Naval Cemetery. We were too late for birds but the memorial stones made for interesting reading; telling stories from centuries past. Our day concluded with another fantastic Jamaican meal: bammy, festival, curried fish, fried fish and shrimp at Gloria’s, an outdoor restaurant frequented by discerning locals and visitors in historic Port Royal.
On our last night in Jamaica we stayed at the Mona Hotel on the grounds of the University of the West Indies. Festive on-campus carnival celebrations gave us another pleasant immersion into island culture. After they wrapped up in the early evening we took an interesting although unsuccessful stroll with Ricardo around the grounds to look for Barn Owl, Jamaican Owl and Northern Potoo. The hotel itself is comfortable and very secure. A wedding celebration on site ended promptly at midnight.
Closing Thoughts - Our trip was planned as a focused birding expedition to see the endemics but ended up being a special encounter with the island. This was in large part due to our hosts at the Lime Tree Farm (Charlie and Suzie) and the Mockingbird Hill Hotel (Shireen and Barbara) and to our bird guides Ryan Love, Ricardo Miller and Robert Thompson and to our drivers Wayne, John, Patty and Cliff and to the general friendliness and beauty of Jamaica. Thanks to all. Thanks to Simon for organizing the trip.
Paul Jones, Ottawa, Canada pauljodiATmagma.ca
Common Name, Scientific Name, Status as per Raffaele’s “Birds of the West Indies”, Our Sightings). “Birds of the West Indies” seems generous in its assessment of abundance levels. We had to scramble to see a number of “common” birds, even within areas of suitable habitat.
(!) - Impossible to miss in habitat (March 5-19)
(E) - Endemic to Jamaica
(ce) - Caribbean endemic
1. Least Grebe - Tachybaptus dominicus - Common, wetlands - One lurking among the lotus leaves in the pond at Kingston’s Hope Botanical Gardens.
2. White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus - Very locally common, coastal - There is a nesting colony of this beautiful bird on the island’s east coast at Hector’s River and we saw fourteen of them (some engaged in display flights) there close offshore on March 20th. We also saw two more at Frenchman’s Cove on the same day. These birds are primarily present on the island March through June and are best seen between six and eight in the morning as they circle about the nesting sites.
3. Brown Pelican - Pelecanus occidentalis - Common, coastal - Small numbers seen along the waterfront in Kingston, our only sightings.
4. (!) Magnificent Frigatebird - Fregata magnificens - Common, coastal - Good numbers at Kingston and Port Antonio, otherwise scattered sightings along the coast.
5. Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias - Common winterer, wetlands - One at Hector’s River and one at the Mandela Highway ponds.
6. Great Egret - Ardea alba - Common, wetlands - Daily sightings in low country wetlands.
7. Tricolored Heron - Egretta tricolor - Common, wetlands - Two at Hope Botanical Gardens, eight at the Kingston sewage works.
8. Little Blue Heron - Egretta caerulea - Common, wetlands - One at Hope Gardens, five at the sewage works.
9. Snowy Egret - Egretta thula - Common, wetlands - Scattered sightings in low country wetlands.
10. (!) Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis - Common, widespread - Abundant in cleared lowlands.
11. Green Heron - Butorides virescens - Common, wetlands - Scattered sightings in low country wetlands.
12. Black-crowned Night-Heron - Nycticorax nycticorax - Uncommon, wetlands - One at the Mandela Highway ponds.
13. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Nyctanassa violacea - Common, wetlands - Two, one at Hope Gardens, one at Frenchman’s Cove.
14. Glossy Ibis - Plegadis falcinellus - Uncommon, wetlands - Two near Port Antonio, thirteen at the sewage works.
15. Blue-winged Teal - Anas discors - Common winterer, wetlands - Five at the Mandela Highway ponds.
16. American Wigeon - Anas americana - Rare winterer, wetlands - Four at the Mandela Highway ponds.
17. Northern Shoveler - Anas clypeata - Rare winterer, wetlands - Six at the Mandela Highway ponds.
18. (!) Turkey Vulture (John Crow) - Cathartes aura - Common, widespread - Many sightings daily, commonest in the lowlands.
19. Osprey - Pandion haliaetus - Common - Four.
20. Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis - Common - Nine, mostly in higher country.
21. (!) American Kestrel - Falco sparverius - Common, widespread - One to four daily.
22. Merlin - Falco columbarius - Uncommon migrant - Two, one near Abbey Green in the Blue Mountains, one from the bar at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill.
23. Sora - Porzana Carolina - Uncommon winterer - One heard at the sewage works.
24. Common Moorhen - Gallinula chloropus - Common, wetlands - Four at Hope Gardens, nine at the sewage works.
25. American Coot - Fulica americana - Uncommon, wetlands - Six at the Mandela Highway ponds.
26. Caribbean Coot - Fulica caribaea - Rare, wetlands - Fifteen at the Mandela Highway ponds. Although the ivory, bulbous frontal shields of the Caribbeans were plainly visible with binoculars, Ricardo’s telescope was useful for studying the coots present along the roadside.
27. Northern Jacana - Jacana spinosa - Common, wetlands - Six at the sewage works.
28. Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus - Common, wetlands - Twenty at the sewage works.
29. Black-bellied Plover - Pluvialis squatarola - Common winterer - Twenty along the Norman Manley Highway, the causeway connecting the international airport and Port Royal to the mainland.
30. Semipalmated Plover - Charadrius semipalmatus - Common winterer - Six along the airport causeway.
31. Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus - Common, open country - Four at the sewage works, our only sightings.
Dowitcher sp. - Two in distant flight at the sewage works, likely Short-billed.
32. Solitary Sandpiper - Tringa solitaria - Uncommon winterer - One at the sewage works.
33. Lesser Yellowlegs - Tringa flavipes - Common migrant - One at the sewage works.
34. Spotted Sandpiper - Actitis macularia - Common winterer - Three at the sewage works.
35. Ruddy Turnstone - Arenaria interpres - Common winterer - Two along the airport causeway.
36. Sanderling - Calidris alba - Common winterer - Four along the airport causeway.
37. Least Sandpiper - Calidris minutilla - Common migrant - 50 along the airport causeway.
38. Laughing Gull - Larus atricilla - Common, coastal - Sixty in the Kingston harbour, not seen elsewhere.
39. (!) Royal Tern - Sterna maxima - Common, coastal - Scattered sightings along the coast.
40. Rock Pigeon - Columba livia - Common - Scattered sightings around lowland habitation.
41. White-crowned Pigeon - Patagioenas leucocephala - Common, coastal forest - 20 to 30 daily around Port Antonio, also seen at the sewage works.
42. (E) Ring-tailed Pigeon - Patagioenas caribaea - Local, forest - 50 plus at Portland Gap/Abbey Green in the Blue Mountains. Five to ten daily at Hotel Mockingbird Hill including studying views. This bird has an interesting flight, an almost crow-like series of glides and flaps.
43. Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura - Locally common, scrub/open forest - Four seen in dry country west of Kingston, no other sightings.
44. (!) Zenaida Dove - Zenaida aurita - Common, widespread - Four to 20 daily.
45. (!) White-winged Dove - Zenaida asiatica - Common, open forest - Two to 20 daily in the lowlands.
46. (!) Common Ground-Dove - Columbina passerina - Very common, widespread - Six to 20 daily.
47. Caribbean Dove - Leptotila jamaicensis - Locally common, coastal forest - Two to three seen and heard daily at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill. At dusk and at first light they were observed on the ground in the hotel’s garden. In the later morning and through the afternoon they were heard calling from the surrounding woods. They were difficult to spot in the foliage but with effort could be picked out as they perched below the canopy on thick horizontal branches. A very beautiful bird.
48. (E) Crested Quail-Dove (Mountain Witch) - Geotrygon versicolor - Local, montane forest - Two sightings of this great bird. The first was at Portland Gap high in the Blue Mountains about a kilometre along the trail past the ranger station. We heard several of them in the distance but then were able to approach and study a calling bird in a tree right beside the trail. Another individual was perching nearby. The second sighting was at dawn on Ecclesdown Road on the northeast coast. The Mountain Witch is said to only appear at first light, or from out of rain and fog.
49. Ruddy Quail-Dove - Geotrygon montana - Common, forest - Two seen in flight in the gardens at Hotel Mockingbird Hill and two seen in the evening on the last stretch of the entrance road up to the hotel, also heard calling in same location.
50. Olive-throated Parakeet - Aratinga nana - Common - A flock of seven on the road to Lime Tree, singles on the grounds of the Hotel Mockingbird Hill.
51. (E) Yellow-billed Parrot - Amazona collaria - Locally common, forest - Observed in Kingston at Hope Gardens (four) and the campus of the University of the West Indies (three) and along the Ecclesdown Road in eastern Jamaica (28). We were informed that the flock at Hope Gardens was a self-sustaining mix of former caged birds and wild flying individuals who had joined them. The same probably applies to the birds at the nearby university. With respect to identification, even at a distance the Yellow-billed’s entire head appears pale. In contrast, the Black-billed’s head appears all dark green. The guides could distinguish the various calls of the two species. We could not. The best area for parrots was along Ecclesdown Road where they are most active between eight and ten in the morning.
52. (E) Black-billed Parrot - Amazona agilis - Locally common, forest - Eight in three groups along Ecclesdown Road. Some plumages of Black-billed have red in the wings. If you see this mark, identification is confirmed.
53. (E) Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo - Saurothera vetula - Common, forest/open forest - Not seen until we reached Mockingbird Hill, a pair were fairly conspicuous in the hotel garden.
54. (E) Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo - Hyetornis pluvialis - Common, forest/open forest - One each at Hardwar Gap, Mockingbird Hill and Ecclesdown Road. The loud, guttural, decelerating call is the best way to clue in on this species.
55. (!) Smooth-billed Ani - Crotophaga ani - Common, widespread - Multiple sightings daily.
56. Barn Owl - Tyto alba - Common - One, a calling bird spot-lighted at night on the grounds of Lime Tree Farm.
57. (E) Jamaican Owl - Pseudoscops grammicus - Common, forest/open forest - Two, both taped in at night. The first was at the Forres Park Guest House near the village of Mavis Bank in the Blue Mountains. For a small fee the hotel staff let us come onto their grounds to look for the bird. They also provided helpful hints to see it. The second sighting was at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill. This bird appears to be quite common throughout Jamaica, even in areas with scattered trees and in backyard gardens in country towns. Of the two calls on the Sutton CD, the “Kleeee” track is apparently most effective in bringing birds in.
58. Black Swift - Cypseloides niger - Locally common - Two ripping low overhead at Lime Tree Farm.
59. White-collared Swift - Streptoprocne zonaris - Common - 26 at Cinchona Gardens in the Blue Mountains, good numbers (50-150) daily at Hotel Mockingbird Hill. Can appear all black unless well seen.
60. (ce) Antillean Palm-Swift - Tachornis phoenicobia - Common, widespread - Regular sightings, this would be a hard bird to miss.
61. (E) Jamaican Mango - Anthracothorax mango - Common (?) - Not an easy bird for us! Some trips find lots, others very few. We had an early but brief look at one at Cinchona on our first day but no additional sightings until the evening of our departure from Mockingbird Hill where, after hours of searching, we had one feeding on banana flowers in a roadside garden up from the hotel. We had the best success with this species along the Bahama Mockingbird track in Hellshire, where we saw three.
62. (E)(!) Red-billed Streamertail (Doctorbird) - Trochilus polytmus - Common, gardens, forest/open forest - Common in the Blue Mountains, a great, great hummingbird. The male’s long tail streamers produce a pleasant whirr in flight, a signature Jamaica bird sound. The local name derives from the bird’s resemblance to the garb of an old-time doctor: peaked black hat and coat with long black tails.
63. (E) Black-billed Streamertail - Trochilus scitulus - Locally common, gardens, forest/open forest - The range of this species is restricted to the eastern tip of the island. We saw two to three daily around the gardens at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill.
64. (ce) Vervain Hummingbird - Mellisuga minima - Common, gardens, forest/open forest - One to four daily, often seen perched high and tiny on a bare outer twig.
65. Belted Kingfisher - Ceryle alcyon - Common winterer, wetlands - One, Mandela Highway ponds.
66. (E) Jamaican Tody - Todus todus - Common, forest/open forest - Two to six daily, more often heard than seen (a harsh trrr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r).
67. (E) (!) Jamaican Woodpecker - Melanerpes radiolatus - Common, widespread - Multiple sightings daily. In addition to the typical melanerpes “churr” this species also emits a harsh, head-turning, parrot-like squawk.
68. (E) Jamaican Elaenia - Myiopagis cotta - Common (?), forest - Two birds on the Hardwar Gap road. This is an inconspicuous bird.
69. (E) Jamaican Pewee - Contopus pallidus - Common (?), forest - Three birds on the Hardwar Gap road and one briefly seen near Lime Tree Farm; again an inconspicuous species.
70. (E) (!) Sad Flycatcher - Myiarchus barbirostris - Common, widespread, forest/open forest - Multiple daily sightings, does not sound sad to me.
71. (E) Rufous-tailed Flycatcher - Myiarchus validus - Fairly common, forest - Seven sightings including at Cinchona, Hardwar Gap and Ecclesdown Road.
72. (ce) Stolid Flycatcher - Myiarchus stolidus - Common, dry forest - Conspicuous and approachable in the thorn scrub of the Hellshire Hills but not seen elsewhere.
73. Gray Kingbird - Tyrannus dominicensis - Common summerer - Two silent birds along the airport causeway on our last day, possible fallouts from a migration wave.
74. (ce) (!) Loggerhead Kingbird - Tyrannus caudifasciatus - Common, widespread - Multiple daily sightings.
75. (E) Jamaican Becard - Pachyramphus niger - Locally fairly common, forest - Singles at Cinchona and Ecclesdown Road, heard at Hardwar Gap; has a very distinctive, buoyant song.
76. Cave Swallow - Petrochelidon fulva - Common - Two to 30 daily.
77. Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica - Common migrant - Two to 20 daily.
Martin sp. - Progne sp. - An unidentified group of six, male, all dark Martins (either Purple or Cuban) was seen flying along the coastal cliffs at Hector’s River on March 20.
78. (ce) Bahama Mockingbird - Mimus gundlachii - Locally common, dry scrub/forest - One taped in along the coastal track in the Hellshire Hills just to the west of Kingston. A very different bird than Northern Mockingbird, it skulks low in vegetation like a thrasher.
79. (!) Northern Mockingbird - Mimus polyglottos - Common, widespread - Multiple daily sightings, including in the Hellshire Hills.
80. (ce) Rufous-throated Solitaire - Myadestes genibarbis - Fairly common, higher elevation forest - Beautiful ventriloquial song the signature sound of the island’s high country; seen at Cinchona and Hardwar Gap.
81. (E) White-eyed Thrush - Turdus jamaicensis - Fairly common at higher elevations - Two to six daily in the high country.
82. (E) (!) White-chinned Thrush - Turdus aurantius - Common and widespread - Multiple daily sightings.
83. (E) Jamaican Crow - Corvus jamaicensis - Locally common, forest - Our only sightings were along Ecclesdown Road. We heard several of them before finally encountering a flock of 25 birds flying in the direction of Port Antonio. This was around 8:30am and near the first farm one encounters heading south out of the good habitat. A very vocal species but hard to see unless you are along a section of the road that provides a vista of the surrounding hills.
84. European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris - Locally common - Eight at Hope Gardens.
85. Yellow-crowned Bishop - Euplectes afer - Uncommon, very local, wetlands - One basic plumaged bird studied at close range at the sewage works. Twelve unidentified Bishops also seen flitting about deeper in the vegetation. Introduced.
86. (E) (!) Jamaican Vireo - Vireo modestus - Common, forest/open forest - Four to twelve sightings daily. This bird has a wide vocal repertoire including a musical trill and a caroling wren-like song. Small and fairly furtive but abundant enough to eventually get a good look at in the open forest it seems to prefer.
87. (E) Blue Mountain Vireo - Vireo osburni - Uncommon, forest - Individuals heard singing (a low, muted trill) at Portland Gap and along the Ecclesdown Road. Ten seen during our five hour Hardwar Gap stroll, low and fairly sluggish in the roadside vegetation. A must-see bird for vireo aficionados.
88. Black-whiskered Vireo - Vireo altiloquus - Common summerer, forest - Not seen until March 18 when two silent birds appeared along the road up to Hardwar Gap. Thereafter three to ten seen/heard daily in the lowlands.
89. Tennessee Warbler - Vermivora peregrina - Rare winterer - One at Hardwar Gap, one at Mockingbird Hill.
90. Northern Parula - Parula americana - Common winterer, forest - Two to four daily.
91. Prothonotary Warbler - Protonotaria citrea - Uncommon migrant - One, a beautiful male at a park along the airport causeway, probably a fallout migrant.
92. Yellow Warbler - Dendroica petechia - Common - Conspicuous and singing in the Hellshire Hills along the Bahama Mockingbird track, otherwise not seen.
93. Cape May Warbler - Dendroica tigrina - Common winterer, forest/open forest - Two, a female at Hardwar Gap and a male at Mockingbird Hill.
94. (!) Black-throated Blue Warbler - Dendroica caerulescens - Common winterer, forest/open forest - Multiple daily sightings, seems to like coffee plantations.
95. Yellow-rumped Warbler - Dendroica coronata - Fairly common winterer - One at Cinchona and one at Mockingbird Hill.
96. Black-throated Green Warbler - Dendroica virens - Uncommon winterer - One at Cinchona.
97. Prairie Warbler - Dendroica discolor - Common winterer, forest/open forest - Four to ten daily.
98. Palm Warbler - Dendroica palmarum - Uncommon winterer - Two at Cinchona, ten at the Hope Gardens.
99. (E) Arrow-headed Warbler - Dendroica pharetra - Locally common, forest - One each at Cinchona, Hardwar Gap and Ecclesdown Road. Inconspicuous. A softer, rounder bird than Black and White Warbler without that species nuthatch-like behaviour.
100. (!) Black-and-white Warbler - Mniotilta varia - Common winterer, forest/open forest - Four to eight daily.
101. (!) American Redstart - Setophaga ruticilla - Common winterer, forest/open forest - Eight to seventeen daily.
102. Worm-eating Warbler - Helmitheros vermivorus - Fairly common winterer, forest - Four.
103. Swainson’s Warbler - Limnothlypis swainsonii - Uncommon winterer, forest - One, along the Portland Gap trail, flushed up twice from the path and observed closely perched low in vegetation. It was great to see this mythical (for Canadians) bird.
104. Ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapilla - Fairly common winterer - Four.
105. Northern Waterthrush - Seiurus noveboracensis - Fairly common winterer, forest/open forest - Three.
106. Louisiana Waterthrush - Seiurus motacilla, forest/open forest - Common winterer - Two.
107. Common Yellowthroat - Geothlypis trichas - Common winterer, wetlands/scrub - One to three daily.
108. (!) Bananaquit - Coereba flaveola - Common, widespread - Multiple daily sightings.
109. (E) Jamaican Spindalis - Spindalis nigricephala - Common, forest/open forest - Six to twelve daily in all manner of wooded habitat, this would be a hard bird to miss.
110. (E) Jamaican Euphonia - Euphonia jamaica - Common, forest/open forest - Recorded daily but heard more often than seen; an inconspicuous bird. The call, which resembles the sound of a car with a dying battery being started (“r-r-r-r-r-r” “r-r-r-r-r”), is the best clue to its presence.
111. Yellow-faced Grassquit - Tiaris olivacea - Common - Four sightings.
112. (!) Black-faced Grassquit - Tiaris bicolor - Common, widespread - Multiple daily sightings, the default roadside small passerine.
113. (E) Yellow-shouldered Grassquit - Loxipasser anoxanthus - Fairly common, forest edge - Seen at Cinchona, Hardwar Gap and Mockingbird Hill; required some work to find.
114. (E) (!) Orangequit - Euneornis campestris - Common, forest/open forest - Multiple daily sightings, including in orange trees.
115. (ce) Greater Antillean Bullfinch - Loxigilla violacea - Common, forest/open forest - Two to twelve daily in all manner of wooded habitat, this would be a hard bird to miss.
116. Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola - Common - Two places to see this introduced bird are Hope Botanical Gardens and the University of the West Indies in Kingston. We had no luck at these spots but did pick up twelve of them late afternoon perched on telephone wires along Garden Boulevard which runs south off Old Hope Road in the upscale Mona Heights district of Kingston.
117. Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolnii - Rare migrant - One, Cinchona, March 16.
118. Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Pheucticus ludovicianus - Rare migrant - A single sighting of three individuals (two females and a beautiful male in breeding plumage) at Hardwar Gap just below the Gap Café on March 18.
119. (E) Jamaican Blackbird (Wild Pine Sergeant) - Nesopsar nigerrimus - Uncommon, montane forest - This is a bird that trips sometime struggle with but we had very good success, mainly because of our visit to Portland Gap. Along this high trail in the Blue Mountains we had studying views of six individuals (two singles and two loosely associating pairs) at or below eye level five to ten metres away. The best area was the kilometre before and after the ranger station. Along the Hardwar Gap road we had one just above the village of Section and one just below the Gap Café on the other side of the mountain. We also had one along Ecclesdown Road. The local name derives from this species habit of feeding in bromeliads (wild pine[apple]s).
120. (ce) (!) Greater Antillean Grackle - Quiscalus niger - Common, widespread - Abundant in the lowlands.
121. (ce) Jamaican Oriole - Icterus leucopteryx - Common, widespread, forest/open forest - Two to six daily in all manner of wooded habitat, this would be a hard bird to miss.
West Indian Whistling Duck and Masked Duck - Our route lacked an extensive, natural wetland site. Trip reports speak of the Black River Morass in western Jamaica as a good spot.
Plain Pigeon - Patagioenas inornata - Described as rare and local in Jamaica by Birdlife International, numbers have been seen in the dry forest around Portland Ridge.
Green-rumped Parrotlet - Forpus passerinus - Common and widespread, but not for us.
Mangrove Cuckoo - Coccyzus minor - Reported as common, we briefly saw an unidentified Coccyzus at Mockingbird Hill and unsuccessfully tried taping in suitable habitat elsewhere.
Northern Potoo - Nyctibius jamaicensis - There was no a staked-out day roost for this bird along our route. We tried a bit of taping at night with no success.
Antillean Nighthawk - Chordeiles gundlachii - A southern migrant; perhaps not yet in?
Greater Antillean Elaenia - Elaenia fallax - A low density canopy species that apparently winters in the lowlands and moves to higher country to nest.
Caribbean Martin - Progne dominicensis - A southern migrant; perhaps not yet in?