With a week off between Christmas and New Year’s and no family obligations this year, we decided a short birding trip to the Caribbean seemed like a pleasant way to spend the holidays. Each of the four main islands that make up the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico) hosts anywhere from 18-28 endemic species, including representatives of several families that are found nowhere else. Although Jamaica is considerably smaller than either Cuba or Hispaniola it actually boasts more endemics, all of which can be seen fairly easily by visiting just two or three sites in the eastern half of the island. We decided this would make a manageable one-week trip that we could do on our own. Not sure how easy it would be to find flights and hotel rooms during Christmas week, we made all of our travel arrangements well in advance, in July. It was therefore exceedingly fortunate that we chose Jamaica over any of the other islands, all of which were severely impacted by the devastating hurricanes later in the summer. Only Jamaica escaped unscathed.
Most birders visit Jamaica between February and May, at which time a few additional Caribbean endemics are present that either migrate elsewhere or are simply difficult to find in the winter. We found very few trip reports or eBird records from visits in late December or early January, so really weren’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, the dry season weather was beautiful (comfortable temperatures, very little rain) and we had no trouble finding the majority of the Jamaican endemics, missing only Jamaican Blackbird, a species that can be difficult at any time. We had decided in advance to focus on just three areas, spending two full days at Hardwar Gap in the Blue Mountains north of Kingston, a full day at Ecclesdown Road in the John Crow Mountains of far northeastern Jamaica, and a day in the dry scrub habitat of the Portland Ridge, along the coast west of Kingston. All of the Jamaican endemics plus a few localized Caribbean endemics (Bahama Mockingbird, Stolid Flycatcher) can be found by visiting this selection of sites. Unfortunately, none of these sites have accommodations particularly close by, and we quickly realized we would either need to rent a car or hire a driver or local guide in order to reach the birding sites. A rental car was cheaper and gave us the flexibility to adjust our schedule as necessary.
Driving in Jamaica is not for the faint of heart or for anyone who lacks experience driving on the left on narrow, winding mountain roads. Most of the roads, including some of the ‘A’ roads out of Kingston and along the north coast, were in terrible condition, a fact not taken into account by our GPS which routinely underestimated driving times by a factor of two. Blind curves were frequent, as were bath-tub sized potholes (and usually the two together), which made it difficult to get up any speed for any length of time. Jamaican drivers are aggressive and somewhat reckless, although not as bad as we had heard (compared to, say, Montreal or Boston). We bought (and highly recommend) the National Geographic Jamaica Adventure Travel Map (2015), which shows the smallest roads and includes obscure place names (example: Ecclesdown) that were often not recognized by Google or our GPS. The map saved us on a number of occasions when those electronic resources fell short. What the map didn’t show, however, was the brand new T1 toll road that parallels the A2 from Kingston to May Pen, well worth the $5 USD toll if you’re heading west from Kingston!
In the Blue Mountains we stayed at Forres Park Nature Retreat (http://www.forrespark.com/), a well known ecotourism establishment that often hosts birding tour groups. What we didn’t fully appreciate until we arrived there is that the lodge, located in the hamlet of Mavis Bank, is 16 km off the main road (B1), down a small road that is in atrocious condition and as a result takes about 45 stressful minutes to negotiate. Staying at Forres Park meant having to drive this road twice a day, including in the pre-dawn dark, in order to visit Hardwar Gap. There is also nowhere to eat or buy food anywhere in the vicinity of the lodge which meant having all of our meals there, an arrangement that turned out to be quite expensive. On the plus side, there was a very cooperative Jamaican Owl resident on the grounds! There are several other places to stay that are closer to Hardwar Gap, but when we stopped by one of them—the Starlight Chalet and Spa near Section—we found the gate padlocked.
The nearest accommodations to Ecclesdown Road are a 30-45 minute drive northwest in the Port Antonio area. This is, however, a relatively touristy area with a good variety of options. Hotel Mockingbird Hill and the Goblin Hill Villas are both reputed to have good birding on their grounds, but both are very expensive and required minimum stays of 4 days (although perhaps only during the holidays). Through Trip Advisor we found the Polish Princess Guest House in Fairy Hill (http://www.polishprincessguesthouse.com/), which was inexpensive and convenient to several good restaurants and to birding sites such as the San San Police Station Road. The very welcoming owner, Barbara, cheerfully accommodated our needs, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to unlock the gate to let us out and giving us a packed lunch as a substitute for the breakfast we would miss. We highly recommend the Polish Princess as a pleasant and convenient base of operations, as it is only about 30 minutes from there to the northern end of Ecclesdown Road.
There do not seem to be any accommodations anywhere near Portland Ridge, which is equidistant from Kingston and Mandeville, about 1-1/2 hours from each. We opted to stay in Mandeville, which would also give us the option to visit Cockpit Country or the Black River Morass if we so chose. We found several hotels and guest houses, and ended up at Agapantha Cottage, a very spacious holiday cottage with three bedrooms that share a common living and dining area and a full kitchen. Staff come in each morning to cook breakfast for guests. We were the only people staying at the time, but this would be a nice option for a group of 4-6. The gardens looked like they might offer good birding, but we arrived in the dark (and rain) and left early the next morning without exploring the grounds.
In Kingston we stayed at The Gardens (http://www.gardensjamaica.com/), a holiday apartment complex that is owned by the same company that runs Forres Park. The Gardens is located in the quiet, upscale Liguanea district of Kingston, and does indeed have extensive gardens that we did not have time to explore. Birding groups frequently stay there, and the consequent eBird hotspot for the site suggests there are many species to be seen on the grounds. Just a few blocks down the road is a large mall with a food court that offers a variety of fast and inexpensive meals.
From the U.S. it is possible to fly either to Montego Bay, the tourist hub in northwest Jamaica, or the grittier Kingston, which is considerably closer to the best birding sites. We opted for the latter, flying American from LAX to Miami and on to Kingston after a brief layover. Numerous resources suggested Island Car Rentals, who have an office in the Kingston airport, as the best and most reliable car rental agency in Jamaica, and we had absolutely no complaints with either their service or the car they provided (Toyota Yaris).
We arrived into Kingston at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day, picked up the rental car, and headed straight to Forres Park, arriving there by about 3:30 pm. We’d grabbed sandwiches in the Miami airport, and now ate these on the balcony outside our room, watching Red-billed Streamertails, Vervain Hummingbirds and Bananaquits feeding in the flowering shrubs along the driveway. An immature female Cape May Warbler was a welcome first North American migrant of the trip. We then walked along the road as far as the nearby coffee factory, picking up the endemic Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Tody, Sad Flycatcher, Orangequit and White-chinned Thrush, as well as Loggerhead Kingbird, White-crowned Pigeon and the only Antillean Palm-Swifts we would see. More migrants came in the form of the ubiquitous American Redstarts and Black-throated Blue Warblers, as well as Magnolia and Prairie Warblers. We were told the lodge’s chef might know where to find Jamaican Owl, and after preparing a very nice Christmas dinner he kindly led us to an area where he said he often saw them on the powerlines, attracted by rodents that visit some roadside dumpsters. Unfortunately, there was a Christmas party with extremely loud music going on in the nearby village. Not surprisingly, no owls were hanging out along the road, and we had absolutely no chance of hearing any calling over the din. We also didn’t get much sleep, as the racket continued until well into the early morning hours.
We left the lodge at 5:30 am to drive to Hardwar Gap, a 35 km trip that ended up taking more than 1-1/2 hrs due to the atrocious state of the roads. We made our first stop at the well-marked Woodside Drive, and walked about 1 km down this private, single-track lane. The first birds of the morning proved to be a pair of Rufous-throated Solitaires sitting conspicuously in the open – although we would hear this species frequently on most days, they are difficult to locate when calling and we would see only one other. Next up was a White-eyed Thrush, followed by a pair of Crested Quail-Doves seen reasonably well, so within the first 15 minutes we had dispensed with three species that can all be tricky! More easily seen endemics such as Jamaican Pewee, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Arrowhead Warbler, Jamaican Spindalis, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit and Jamaican Euphonia rounded out the morning.
We moved on to an area of the road about 1.5 km north of Holywell NP that we had read was supposed to be good for Jamaican Blackbird, but the only new species we encountered was a Greater Antillean Bullfinch. A Lincoln’s Sparrow consorting with Black-faced Grassquits was, however, a bit of a surprise. By late morning the bird activity had dropped to next to nothing, and a short walk to the waterfall in Holywell NP was unproductive. We finished the afternoon back along the road south of Woodside Drive, where we got good looks at a Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, and then made the tedious drive back to Forres Park before dark.
As we were in the middle of our dinner on the outdoor dining patio at the lodge, a Jamaican Owl began to call nearby. We dropped our utensils and ran to get our bins and a light. The kitchen staff knew where the owl was likely to be, and one of them led us along a small path into the adjacent coffee plantation, right to the tree where the owl sat. It stayed in view for a minute or so then flew to a part of the tree we couldn’t see. We returned to the patio to resume our dinner, very happy to have found this species (or to have had it find us!) so easily.
While at Holywell yesterday we had met a local park ranger and bird guide, Jermy Schroeter, and hired him for the morning to help us find some as yet unseen endemics we thought might prove difficult, in particular Jamaican Blackbird, Blue Mountain Vireo and Jamaican Elaenia. We rendezvoused with Jermy at Newcastle and then spent the morning birding along the main road in several areas where he said the blackbird is most often seen, including a southern stretch between Newcastle and Woodside Drive, and another area further north, about halfway between Holywell and Section. In the course of the morning we picked up Jamaican Vireo, Jamaican Becard, Jamaican Woodpecker and Ring-tailed Pigeon, and got great photos of a Crested Quail-Dove that was building a nest over the road. Unfortunately, we didn’t find Jamaican Blackbird or either of our other key target species. Jermy left us at noon in Section, and we spent the afternoon working our way back south, birding the same sites in reverse order and eventually finding both Jamaican Elaenia and Blue Mountain Vireo before heading back for a final night at Forres Park.
The Jamaican Owl began to call intermittently just as we sat down to dinner, but we managed to restrain ourselves and finish our meal before once more going to look for it. We followed the same path into the coffee plantation as last night, but then spent about 15 minutes stumbling around among the coffee bushes before finally pinpointing which tree the owl was in. Tonight we had even better (closer and longer) views of the bird.
We spent the first two hours of the morning birding our way to the coffee factory and back, then enjoyed a late breakfast at Forres Park before hitting the road for the north coast. Rather than taking the longer but faster route back through Kingston to the A3, we decided instead to take the B1, which would mean we would pass through Hardwar Gap and could try for Jamaican Blackbird again. By the time we arrived there in the late morning the Newcastle end of the road was very quiet, but there was still some activity along the northern stretch near Section. Hearing a loud warbler chip note we didn’t recognize we pished to see who it might be, and were astonished when a Swainson’s Warbler hopped up into clear view! Unfortunately it didn’t stay long enough for us to get the cameras up. And once again we found no sign of Jamaican Blackbirds.
Arriving in the Port Antonio area in the late afternoon, we made a stop at the San San Police Station Road. Apart from some Ring-tailed Pigeons, the forest there was extremely quiet, and we soon moved on to the Goblin Hill Villas to look for hummingbirds. There we found the only Jamaican Mango of the trip, as well as our first Greater Antillean Grackles, and had a Peregrine Falcon fly over. We finally made it to the Polish Princess Guest House, close to Blue Lagoon, at dusk. Following owner Barbara’s recommendation, we had dinner at the nearby Woody’s in San San, a local burger joint that is justifiably renowned (once featured in the New York Times!) for its tasty plantain burgers.
We had conflicting sets of directions to Ecclesdown Road, with some accounts suggesting it should be birded from the northern end near Long Bay while others suggested access was from the southern end near Machioneal and Reach Falls. The southern end looked (and indeed was) easier to find (follow signs to Reach Falls but stay straight rather than taking the left turn to the falls), so we decided to take that route. The drawback, we discovered, is that there has been considerable incursion of banana and coconut palm plantations into the forest from the south, and it is necessary to drive in 8-10 km before good, relatively undisturbed habitat is reached. In contrast, from the northern end good habitat is reached in only about 2 km. As soon as we got into intact forest and found a place to park (not easy), we left the car and began to walk the road. While we were getting ourselves organized, a Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo called and then put in a brief appearance. We could hear a lot of parrot activity in the distance, and eventually had several Black-billed Parrots land nearby to feed where we could see them. Driving on a few km we found Yellow-billed Parrots and a pair of Green-rumped Parrotlets. Both endemic species of cuckoo were relatively common along the road, as was Jamaican Tody, a species that was scarce at Hardwar Gap.
We had planned to spend the entire day birding Ecclesdown, but misjudged the length of the road and were surprised to find ourselves at the northernmost end before noon. We drove back south along the coast to Hector’s River to see if White-tailed Tropicbirds might have returned to the nesting cliff at Happy Grove (answer: no), and since we were already close to Machioneal decided to drive Ecclesdown Road a second time, again from south to north. Our only remaining target species were now Black-billed Streamertail, Jamaican Blackbird and Jamaican Crow. Streamertails were abundant along the road but it was difficult to get good views as they zipped around the canopy, and most of those we had seen well so far had been either females or immature males, both of which have black bills in both species. Finally we managed to get a good look at an adult male with full-length tail streamers that was decisively a Black-billed Streamertail. We heard Jamaican Crows in the far distance a few times, but once again had no whiff of Jamaican Blackbird. Tonight we tried the other nearby restaurant Barbara had recommended—Gurley Aston in Boston Bay—and had excellent Jamaican jerk.
This morning we made one last try for the crow and the blackbird, driving in to the northern end of Ecclesdown Road at dawn. To find the road from this end, it is necessary to take the inland turn north of Long Bay that is signed for the Fair Prospect High School, pass the school on the right, and then take the second left, opposite a sign saying “Welcome to Hartford.” As we came into good habitat we first flushed several Caribbean Doves off the road, and after parking and starting to walk encountered two pairs of Ruddy Quail-Doves. Ring-tailed Pigeons were also conspicuous this morning, but in general it was much quieter than yesterday. After about an hour it began to rain steadily, and we turned back and returned to the guest house for a late breakfast.
We had booked a room for tonight in Mandeville, the closest lodgings we had been able to find to the Portland Ridge area that we planned to bird tomorrow morning. We now drove back across the island to Kingston to take the new T1 toll road west. This route took us right by the turnoff to Portland Ridge, so we decided to detour south to Portland Cottage to check out the road conditions and get our bearings for the following day. The road through Hayes to Lionel Town and on to Portland Cottage turned out to be in much better condition than most, and it only took about 30 minutes to get there from May Pen. From Portland Cottage we continued out the dirt track towards Portland Lighthouse, stopping close to the mangroves when we reached a muddy spot we weren’t sure we wanted to negotiate in the rental car. It was 3 p.m., and we fully expected it to be oppressively hot with no bird activity. We were therefore surprised to find the temperature to be very pleasant (warm but with a refreshing sea breeze) and birds everywhere. Every scrubby tree lining the roadside seemed to hold several migrant warblers, and it was not long before we had found both of our target species, Stolid Flycatcher and Bahama Mockingbird.
We stayed at Portland Cottage longer than we had intended, and didn’t start the drive back towards Mandeville until about 5 p.m. Somewhere between May Pen and Porus it began to rain, and we arrived in Mandeville in the dark in a torrential downpour. At one point we realized too late that the road in front of us was completely flooded, but there was nothing we could do other than plow through with no idea how deep the water might be. Fortunately the Yaris made it out the other side without stalling, and after several additional wrong turns we finally made it to the poorly marked Agapantha Cottage by 7 p.m. There was no way we were going to go back out into the deluge to look for food, and instead broke into our emergency stash of instant oatmeal for dinner.
Having seen both Portland Ridge target species yesterday, we decided to drive north to Cockpit Country to make one last try for the two endemics we had not yet found, Jamaican Crow and Jamaican Blackbird. Our GPS suggested the drive from Mandeville to Burnt Hill and the Barbecue Bottom road would take about 45 min, but (predictably) it ended up taking twice that on account of the potholes. The Barbecue Bottom road is an unpaved, single-lane track similar to Ecclesdown Road, but with more vegetation encroaching on both sides. We drove in only about 1 km before finding a place to pull off and continuing on foot for another few km. There was very little bird activity, and after about an hour we called it quits and made our way back towards Mandeville. Somewhere near the outskirts of Christiana a Jamaican Crow appeared, flying down the road towards us and passing overhead. Not exactly the looks we’d hoped for, but a last-minute save nonetheless!
As it was still only early afternoon when we reached May Pen, we again detoured down to Portland Cottage. Bird activity was a bit less than yesterday, and today we didn’t see Bahama Mockingbird (but didn’t look particularly hard for it). Yesterday we had heard a Clapper Rail calling, but had not had time to try to lure it into view. Today it was still calling from an inaccessible patch of mangroves from which it wouldn’t budge. Not wanting to risk arriving in Kingston after dark, we cut our time short and left by 3:30 p.m, once again encountering torrential rain as we drove east from May Pen. We made it to The Gardens in Kingston by 5:30 p.m., had dinner at the nearby mall, and spent the evening packing for our early morning flight back to the U.S. We retired long before midnight, but local fireworks woke us up to briefly acknowledge the New Year.
Our final trip list was 82 species, including all of the Jamaican endemics except Jamaican Blackbird. Several Caribbean endemics (Greater Antillean Elaenia, Antillean Nighthawk, Caribbean Martin, Gray Kingbird) are absent or unlikely at this time of year, but apart from that drawback we can find no reason not to recommend Christmas week as a very pleasant and productive time to bird Jamaica!
Complete Trip List:
FP: Forres Park
HG: Hardwar Gap
EC: Ecclesdown Road
PC: Portland Cottage
bold = Jamaican endemics
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis): PC, 8
Great Egret (Ardea alba): PC, 5
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula): PC, 24
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea): FP, 1; PC, 2; Hector’s River, 1
Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor): PC, 10
Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens): PC, 1
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis): seen occasionally in fields
Green Heron (Butorides virescens): PC, 1
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura): common everywhere
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis): FP, 1; EC, 1
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus): PC, 65
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius): Hector’s River, 2
Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca): PC, 1
Willet (Tringa semipalmata): PC, 4
Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes): PC, 1
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus): Hector’s River, 4
White-crowned Pigeon (Patagioenas leucocephala): FP, 6; EC, 1; Goblin Hill, 4
Ring-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas caribaea): HG, 1; EC, 7; San San, 2
Common Ground-Dove (Columbina passerina): EC, 3; PC, 10
Crested Quail-Dove (Geotrygon versicolor): HG, 3, EC, 1
Ruddy Quail-Dove (Geotrygon montana): EC, 5
Caribbean Dove (Leptotila jamaicensis): EC, 4; PC, 2
Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita): Burnt Hill, 1; San San, 1
Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani): FP, 8; HG, 1; Burnt Hill, 1
Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo (Coccyzus pluvialis): HG, 1; FP, 1; EC, 3
Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo (Coccyzus vetula): EC, 4
Jamaican Owl (Pseudoscops grammicus): FP, 1
White-collared Swift (Streptoprocne zonaris): near PC, 2
Antillean Palm-Swift (Tachornis phoenicobia): FP, 2
Jamaican Mango (Anthracothorax mango): Goblin Hill, 1
Vervain Hummingbird (Mellisuga minima): FP, 2; HG, 1
Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus): FP, 6; HG, 33; EC, 13; Burnt Hill, 3
Black-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus): EC, 1
Jamaican Tody (Todus todus): FP, 1; HG, 1; EC, 10
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon): PC, 1
Jamaican Woodpecker (Melanerpes radiolatus): FP, 1; HG, 2; EC, 2
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius): FP, 2; HG, 1; PC, 1; Burnt Hill, 2
Merlin (Falco columbarius): FP, 1; PC, 1
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus): Goblin Hill, 1
Black-billed Parrot (Amazona agilis): EC, 24
Yellow-billed Parrot (Amazona collaria): EC, 6
Green-rumped Parrotlet (Forpus passerinus): EC, 2
Olive-throated Parakeet (Eupsittula nana); FP, 4; Burnt Hill, 1; Fairy Hill, 5
Jamaican Elaenia (Myiopagis cotta): HG, 1
Jamaican Pewee (Contopus pallidus): HG, 8; EC, 1
Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris): FP, 4; EC, 1
Rufous-tailed Flycatcher (Myiarchus validus): HG, 3; EC, 3
Stolid Flycatcher (Myiarchus stolidus): PC, 6
Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus): seen frequently on powerlines
Jamaican Becard (Pachyramphus niger): HG, 4; EC, 1
Blue Mountain Vireo (Vireo osburni): HG, 1; EC, 1
Jamaican Vireo (Vireo modestus): HG, 5; PC, 1; Burnt Hill, 1
Jamaican Crow (Corvus jamaicensis): 1, near Mandeville
Rufous-throated Solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis): HG, 2; EC, 1 (heard frequently)
White-eyed Thrush (Turdus jamaicensis): HG, 6
White-chinned Thrush (Turdus aurantius): FP, 2; HG, 11; EC, 3; San San, 2
Bahama Mockingbird (Mimus gundlachii): PC, 2
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos): PC, 7; Goblin Hill, 1; Fairy Hill, 1
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla): PC, 1; Burnt Hill, 1
Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum): EC, 3
Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis): PC, 2
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia): HG, 11; EC, 2; PC, 5
Swainson's Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii): HG, 1
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas): HG, 4; EC, 2
Arrowhead Warbler (Setophaga pharetra): HG, 11; EC, 3
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla): FP, 11; HG, 8; EC, 12; PC, 7
Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina): FP, 3
Northern Parula (Setophaga americana): FP, 1; HG, 1; EC, 7; PC, 6
Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia): FP, 1; PC, 2
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia): PC, 2
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens): FP, 5; HG, 8; EC, 1
Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum): PC, 1
Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor): FP, 1; HG, 3; EC, 1; PC, 5
Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola): FP, 10; HG, 17; EC, 10; PC, 1
Black-faced Grassquit (Tiaris bicolor): FP, 2; HG, 23; EC, 2
Orangequit (Euneornis campestris): FP, 2; HG, 13; EC, 15
Greater Antillean Bullfinch (Loxigilla violacea): HG, 2; EC, 6; PC, 1
Yellow-shouldered Grassquit (Loxipasser anoxanthus): HG, 7; EC, 1; Burnt Hill, 2
Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii): HG, 1
Jamaican Spindalis (Spindalis nigricephala): HG, 32; EC, 2; Burnt Hill, 1
Jamaican Oriole (Icterus leucopteryx): FP, 1; EC, 1
Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger): Goblin Hill, 15
Jamaican Euphonia (Euphonia jamaica): HG, 8; EC, 1