Jamaica is not a destination for anyone expecting to amass a large trip total - a trip list of 100+ would be a good score for a one-week trip. However, what it may lack in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. The island boasts an extremely impressive total of 30 endemic species, all highly possible on such a short visit. I have listed below these species, together with local Jamaican names - it is very useful to know these names, as many Jamaicans know them:
Crested Quail-Dove (Geotrygon versicolor) - Mountain Witch, Blue Partridge
Ring-tailed Pigeon (Columba caribaea) - Ringtail
Jamaican Owl (Pseudoscops grammicus) - Patoo with the big eyes
Jamaican Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis) - Patoo with the long tail
Black-billed Streamertail (Trochilus scitulus) - Black-billed Doctorbird
Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) - Red-billed Doctorbird
Jamaican Mango (Anthracothorax mango) - Doctorbird
Jamaican Parakeet (Aratinga nana) - Parakeet
Yellow-billed Parrot (Amazona collaria) - Yellowbill
Black-billed Parrot (Amazona agilis) - Blackbill
Jamaican Woodpecker (Melanerpes radiolatus) - Woodpecker
Jamaican Tody (Todus todus) - Robin Redbreast
Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo (Hyetornis pluvialis) - Old Man Bird
Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo (Saurothera vetula) - Old Woman Bird
Rufous-tailed Flycatcher (Myiarchus validus) - Big Tom Fool
Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris) - Little Tom Tool
Jamaican Elaenia (Myiopagis cotta) - Sarah Bird
Jamaican Becard (Pachyramphus niger) - Mountain Dick (male), Mountain Judy (female)
Jamaican Pewee (Contopus pallidus) - Willie Pee
Jamaican Euphonia (Euphonia jamaica) - Blue Quit
Arrowhead Warbler (Dendroica pharetra) - Ants Bird
Blue Mountain Vireo (Vireo osburni)
Jamaican Vireo (Vireo modestus) - Sewi-Sewi
White-chinned Thrush (Turdus aurantius) - Hopping Dick
White-eyed Thrush (Turdus jamaicensis) - Glasseye
Jamaican Crow (Corvus jamaicensis) - Jabbering Crow
Jamaican Spindalis (Spindalis nigricephala) - Mark Head
Orangequit (Euneornis campestris) - Blue Baize
Yellow-shouldered Grassquit (Loxipasser anoxanthus) - Yellow Back
Jamaican Blackbird (Nesopsar nigerrimus) - Wild Pine Sergeant
There are also a number of near-endemic and Caribbean birds, which are shown below, as well as details on where else they may be found:
West Indian Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna arborea) - Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola, Caymans, Antigua, Barbuda, Virgin Is., but rare across much of its range.
Plain Pigeon (Columba inornata) - Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico - winter only
Antillean Palm Swift (Tachornis phoenicobia) - Cuba, Hispaniola
Vervain Hummingbird (Mellisuga minima) - Hispaniola
Antillean Nighthawk (Chordeiles gundlachi) - Bahamas, Cuba, Caymans, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Virgin Is.
Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) - Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Caymans
Greater Antillean Elaenia (Elaenia fallax) - Hispaniola
Stolid Flycatcher (Myiarchus stolidus) - Hispaniola
Rufous-throated Solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis) - Hispaniola, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent
Bahama Mockingbird (Mimus gundlachi) - Bahamas, cays off N coast of Cuba
Greater Antillean Bullfinch (Loxigilla violacea) - Bahamas, Hispaniola
Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger) - Cuba, Hispaniola, Caymans
Jamaican Oriole (Icterus leucopteryx) - Caymans (extinct), San Andres
My priority was these endemics and near-endemics, and the trip was planned around these species. Little effort was put into seeing the shorebirds, seabirds, waterfowl, North American migrants etc that are also possible.
I was very happy with the trip, ending up on a modest total of 89 species, but these included all the endemics except one (Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo) and 10 out of the 13 near-endemics (I missed Plain Pigeon (out of season), Antillean Nighthawk and Bahama Mockingbird).
As far as timing goes, I think it depends on what you are looking for out of your trip. September was certainly not ideal, mainly because the breeding season is well and truly over then, and the birds, especially the cuckoos and quail doves were very quiet. If your priority is the endemics, April or May would probably be a much better time, although winter would be best if North American migrants were also of interest.
Enormous thanks to Robert & Ann Sutton, Dwight Pryce and Fritz whose assistance in the field made such a big difference to my trip. A big thank you to Marty Michener and Gail Mackiernan, who were a constant source of advice and encouragement throughout the planning stages. I am also very grateful to Ellen Paul, Tim Boucher, Steve Whitehouse, Michael Schwarz, Susan Koenig, Carol Foil, David Mark, Joan Renninger, and Ben Jesup for their considerable input and assistance.
Thanks to all those who wrote and published such excellent trip reports, full of really useful tips on accommodation, directions and general advice, which I have shamelessly repeated where appropriate throughout this report!
Finally, as usual, many thanks to Sara, my wife, for all her patience and tolerance.
As with most of our trips, we decided on an independent fly and drive holiday rather than a package based in one resort. This was because it appeared that we'd need to visit a variety of sites right across the island in order to find all the endemics and other specials.
The flights were from London Heathrow to Montego Bay via Kingston and were booked through Ebookers over the internet, and confirmed by phone (http://www.ebookers.com tel 0870 010 7000). The flights were with Air Jamaica, and cost UKP 395 per head including all taxes. Please note that a departure tax of JAD 1,000 or USD 27 per person is payable on departure. Flight times were as follows:
Outwards: Depart London Heathrow 1.9.00 16:05, arrive Kingston 19:50
Depart Kingston 22:45, arrive Montego Bay 23:20
Return: Depart Montego Bay 9.9.00 22:05, arrive Kingston 22:35
Depart Kingston 23:55, arrive London Heathrow 10.9.00 15:05
Note that Jamaica is 6 hours ahead of the UK in September.
Car hire was arranged through Dhana Limited, a local firm based in Montego Bay. All arrangements were made over the internet (http:\\www.mobay.com) and by contacting the proprietor William Dhana by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). William was very helpful and the whole business was a very painless affair. The car was a Toyota Corolla, with automatic transmission, air conditioning etc, and coped very well with the Jamaican roads. The cost was USD 453 (UKP 302) for the 8 day period. I drove a total of 1,450 km (900 miles).
The state of the roads was actually much better than I had been expecting. Virtually all the roads we drove were now tarred, including the previously appalling stretch from Hardwar Gap north to Buff Bay, which has been tarred very recently and is now an easy drive, although still narrow and twisting. I also found the road up from Mandeville to Burnt Hill perfectly driveable, (although I didn't continue down the other side through Barbeque Bottom to Duncans), as is the road up from Fisherman's Inn to Windsor Cave.
The biggest problem is the numerous potholes. Actually, that's not true. The potholes are fine - it's the meteor craters you have to look out for! Also, look our for those sneaky pot bunker holes which are deeper than they are wide - some stretches of road look like the Old Course at St. Andrews! These potholes are dotted around most roads, even the main coastal highways, but you can usually see them coming, unless of course you're driving at night, which I really wouldnt recommend if you can avoid it. The worst areas I encountered were:
a couple of patches on the Falmouth - Windsor Cave road, especially in the village of Sherwood Content, and between there and Windsor;
between Lionel Town and Portland Cottage and
some odd patches on the road up to Burnt Hill, especially around Wait-a-bit.
They can all be driven quite easily in a 2WD, as long as you're careful. The untarred tracks up to Rocklands, within Hollywell National Park, and between Portland Cottage and the lighthouse are also pretty awful, and need to be driven with care, although again they are quite driveable in a 2WD
A lot has also been written about Jamaican drivers, most of which is quite true - they drive much too quickly, often inches from your back bumper, will usually stay in the middle of the road or swerve into your path to avoid a pothole, and will overtake you absolutely anywhere.
However, the one thing they have in their favour is that they are extremely predictable. You will soon realise that the car behind you will, without any doubt whatsoever, pass you at the first available half-opportunity, will not give you anywhere near enough room, and will make absolutely no allowance that in so doing, he leaves you facing a pothole / pedestrian / goat etc - that's your problem, man! Once you realise that, and that you are also expected to drive in exactly the same way, driving is actually pretty easy, and I have to admit that I really enjoyed it!
Costs & Money
The local currency is the Jamaican Dollar (JAD), although US Dollars (USD) were also very widely accepted, and often quoted in places like hotels, restaurants, shops etc right across the island. Approximate exchange rates against sterling (UKP) at the time of my visit were as follows:
UKP 1 = JAD 60;
UKP 1 = USD 1.50
These are the exchange rates I have used in translating costs throughout this report.
Credit cards were widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, shops, petrol stations etc. However, some places e.g. Marshall's Pen, Hollywell National Park required cash. We took our money in a mix of USD (cash & travellers' cheques), UKP and JAD. We changed money into JAD at hotels.
Don't even think of going to Jamaica expecting it to be a cheap destination - it is one of the most expensive places I have visited, and accommodation, food etc is considerably dearer than, for example, North America. The only thing that was cheap compared with the UK was petrol (but then is there anywhere in the world where it isn't?!), although at some JAD 24 (UKP 0.40) per litre, North Americans will probably still be appalled!
The total cost of the trip is estimated at some UKP 1,800 for 2 people:
Flights - UKP 790
Car hire - UKP 300
Hotels - UKP 375
Bird guiding - UKP 100
Fuel - UKP 50
Meals - UKP 150
Incidentals - UKP 50
I hired two professional guides during the trip, namely:
Fritz at Rocklands Tel +876 952 2009. Charged JAD 2,000 (UKP 33) for 3 hours.
Dwight Pryce at Hardwar Gap. Dwight works as a ranger at the Hollywell National Park. Book him through the Jamaica Conversation and Development Trust (JCDT). Website www.greenjamaica.org E-mail email@example.com Tel +876 960 2848 or 2849 Fax +876 960 2850. Charged USD 100 (UKP 67) for a total of 8 hours guiding over two mornings.
Both were relatively expensive on an a per hour basis compared with guides I have hired in e.g. USA, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Gambia, Poland etc. However, both were also very good birders, and helped me see a lot of species. I always like to use local bird guides, as you get a much better feel for the local bird scene, as well as other aspects of local life. I also believe that the more people who make a living out of birds and wildlife, the more likely it is that conservation will be a local priority.
Accommodation and food
We stayed at the following places (all accommodation prices are per room):
1.9.00 Relax Resort, Montego Bay. Room USD 90 (UKP 60) per night, breakfast extra. Nice place with pool and gardens, and very convenient for airport. Perfect for "normal" non-birding holiday-making partners, kids etc! Air con was only mildly effective. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Tel + 876 979 0656 Fax +876 952 7218
2.9.00 Relax Resort, Montego Bay. As above
3.9.00 Kariba Kariba Guest House, Mandeville. Room USD 45 (UKP 30) including breakfast. Very nice place on outskirts of town - really good value & highly recommended as an alternative to Marshall's Pen. Tel +876 962 8006 To find the guesthouse from the west, turn left at the first roundabout you encounter as you approach town, onto the bypass. After a few kilometres you will come to a second roundabout, where you can turn left towards May Pen, or right towards the town centre. The guesthouse is found by taking a rough steep track to the right just before this roundabout, approaching from the west. There is a small sign, but it is very difficult to see it in the dark, and we drove past several times, even when we were looking for it!
4.9.00 Marshall's Pen, Mandeville. Beef farm, home of Robert and Ann Sutton, Jamaica's foremost ornithologists. They have a self-catering flat here that they rent out to visiting birders - you must stay here if you can. Room USD 70 (UKP 47) per night Tel + 876 904 5454 or e-mail Robert & Ann on email@example.com
5.9.00 Marshall's Pen, Mandeville. As above
6.9.00 Hollywell National Park, Hardwar Gap. Self-catering cabin. Fairly basic - no hot water, and no electricity during our visit due to lightning strikes. Also, beds were a little damp. Gas ring and fridge (if electricity!). No food available locally - bring it with you. Minor discomforts more than compensated for by absolutely stunning views over the Blue Mountains, all the way to Kingston and the Caribbean, as well as staying right in the middle of prime birding territory - just a few hundred yards from The Gap café.
2-bed cabin JAD 2,500 (UKP 42) per night (reduced to JAD 2,000 (UKP 33) due to no electricity). 4-bed cabin JAD 3,500 (UKP 58) per night. Book through the JCDT - see details under Guiding above. Be careful to confirm your reservation - when we arrived they'd cancelled our booking because we hadnt paid in advance (they hadnt asked us to!), but luckily all the cabins were empty.
7.9.00 Hollywell National Park, Hardwar Gap. See above
8.9.00 Fisherman's Inn, Falmouth. Roadside hotel, some 2 km east of the town. Very comfortable, right on shore of Caribbean, with nice pool, but air-con was barely functioning, and we were really bothered by biting sandflies in the night. Very convenient for Windsor Cave area. Room USD 95 (UKP 63) Tel +876 954 3427 Fax +876 954 4078
We mostly self-catered or ate at takeaway chains such as KFC, McDonalds etc. We ate out twice, on the first night at the Relax Resort (very average meal, and grossly overpriced) and the last night at the Fisherman's Inn (excellent meal and good value, although not cheap).
Virtually none. We saw lots of police, including several roadside spot-checks being carried out, but I only got stopped once, for driving and reading a map at the same time. He didnt ask to see my documents, and let me drive on, after firstly giving me directions to Port Morant!
However, there is a lot of concern in Jamaica at present about the rising crime rate, in particular violent crime, and they are talking about giving the police much more power, which they are acknowledging in advance will infringe on their civil liberties. Future visitors may therefore see more in the way of roadblocks, stop and search etc, but it shouldnt be a big problem, as long as you've got nothing to hide!
Plenty of public phone boxes, but they only take prepaid phone cards. You will then have to find one that works. Even then, I never actually managed to complete a phone call, as every time I tried (maybe 10 times +) I was told that the number was busy - more likely a problem with the system. The international code for Jamaica is 876. To make an international call from Jamaica dial 00 followed by the relevant country code (44 for the UK).
September is in the middle of the rainy season, and you also run a risk of hurricanes. Most mornings were fine, usually clouding over in the afternoon with or without rain, sometimes in the form of a thunderstorm. It would usually clear up before dark.
The only really heavy rain we had was on 7 September in the Blue Mountains when it wiped out most of the day. It was very hot indeed (90 F +) in the coastal areas, and still pretty hot in the highlands. The only time it actually felt cold was at night in the Blue Mountains. This, together with the high humidity made things pretty uncomfortable at times. Dawn in September was at about 06:00 with dusk at about 18:00.
Health, safety & annoyances
No vaccinations are compulsory, but I would advise keeping up to date with the usual jabs such as tetanus, typhoid, polio, hepatitis A etc.. Jamaica is not in a malarial zone. Mosquitoes were a real pain at times, especially around Windsor Cave, Elim Pools and Marshall's Pen. Cattle ticks are also reputedly abundant, with Marshall's Pen in particular being notorious for them. Somehow, I managed to go the whole week without getting one! Trousers tucked into socks definitely helped, as well as avoiding walking through long grass.
I did however manage to walk through some poison sumac or something similar on my first day, leaving my ankles covered in nasty welts and blisters, although it didn't cause my ankles to swell up and stop me walking as I experienced with poison ivy in 1999.
Much has been made of the current high incidence of violent crime in Jamaica, and we received many warnings about it before we went. This is undoubtedly a big problem - every time we turned on the radio it was some talk show discussing the problem, and how it should be resolved.
Of course, as visitors on a short trip, we would have been extremely unlucky to have fallen victim to such crime, especially as it is primarily a problem in the main urban centres such as Kingston, although petty theft etc is also a problem in most of the main resorts such as Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Fortunately, most of the main birding areas are well away from these hot spots and this did not affect us in any way.
We were also warned to expect a significant degree of hostility and even racism aimed at us as relatively well-off white tourists. This largely results from the fact that the majority of tourists visiting Jamaica stay in large all-inclusive hotel complexes, known locally as "tourist prisons", and consequently the local economy benefits very little from their presence. This understandably causes some resentment among locals.
I am delighted to report that we encountered none of this hostility whatsoever, and never felt remotely in danger or unwelcome. On the contrary, our memory will be of friendly, hospitable people who made our trip a real pleasure. Examples of little incidents which reinforce this feeling are many - the man who came running after me in Buff Bay to tell me I'd left the car's headlights on, the owner of The Gap café who happily offered us a loan of his tin opener and gave us a box of matches when he heard that our cabin didnt have these items, the couple talking in their driveway in Mandeville who I asked for directions for the Kariba Kariba Guest House, and who insisted phoning them for directions, and booked us a room at the same time as there was only one left etc etc.
I think it is worth emphasising this as I'm sure it is deterring other potential visitors from making a trip to Jamaica, which would be a great shame, for all concerned. Of course, you reap what you sow in this respect - a little respect and politeness shown will usually be repaid. A smile and a wave at passing pedestrians almost invariably got a wave back, and as Michael Schwarz at Windsor Cave suggested, preceding any request for directions etc with a polite "Good morning" will get you a much better response.
Birds of the West Indies (see sample plates from this book)- Raffaele, Wiley et al (Helm). ISBN 0-7136-4905-4 A very nice guide, although too big to use in the field. I felt that the two plates that illustrated all the Jamaican endemics together were generally more representative of these birds than the illustrations of the same birds elsewhere in the book. Click here for more details on this book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Birds of Jamaica - Downer & Sutton (CUP). ISBN 0-521-38309-9. Excellent photos of all the endemics and Caribbean specialities, very informative text and lots of great background info. May now be out of print, but Robert Sutton has a stock of them. I'm now the proud owner of a copy signed and dated by both authors!
The Rough Guide to Jamaica - Thomas & Vaitilingam (Rough Guide). ISBN 1-85828-230-6. Very good for accommodation, practical advice etc. Click here for details on this book from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
Jamaica - December 1999 - Ellen Paul
Jamaica - June/July 1997 - George Dremeaux
Jamaica - Winter 1998 - Keith Taylor
Jamaica - March 1995 - Gail Mackiernan
Jamaica - February 1999 - Gail Mackiernan
Jamaica - March 1996 - Marcia & Ron Braun
Jamaica - September / October 1988 - A Greensmith
Maps of main Jamaican sites - Steve Whitehouse
Jamaica - November / December 1994 - Mark Sutton
Jamaica - November 1997 - Stephen Greenfield
Jamaica - December 1995 - Mark Lockwood
These were obtained from Steve Whitehouse's FBRIS (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org tel 01908 454541) and the excellent web sites hosted by:
Urs Geiser - http://www.crosswinds.net/~birdtrips/TripReports.html and
Blake Maybank - http://www3.ns.sympatico.ca/ns/maybank/Trips.htm .
Bird sound recordings from Jamaica - Steve Whitehouse. Available directly from Steve
Unfortunately, this was published about the same time as the start of my trip and I couldn't get hold of a copy, but I would strongly recommend that you do.
Everyone recommends the Esso 1:356,000 map of Jamaica, which can only be bought locally. This is certainly very good, and cheap at about JAD 60 (UKP 1). However, I actually found the Globetrotter 1:300,000 map of Jamaica & The Cayman Is. even better. I've been very critical of other maps in this series, but this one was quite superb. I had no difficulty whatsoever finding my way to such tricky destinations as Windsor Cave and Burnt Hill just following the map.
It was actually even more detailed than the Esso map, for example showing a critically important junction in Perth Town to Sherwood Content, on the way to Windsor Cave, which is omitted from the Esso map. It also has larger scale insert maps of Kingston and Montego Bay, and a superb one of the Blue Mountains that shows every road and track that I used.