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28 February - 6 March 2010
by Chris Spagnoli
A rough winter left me in sore need of a break, so I decided to head down for warm weather and an avifauna that could conceivably be surveyed in the course of a single vacation. Turks and Caicos lost out and Jamaica took the blue ribbon.
For preparation I read a few trip reports on the ‘Net. I had already purchased Birds of the West Indies by Rafaelle et al. for a previous trip to Antigua, which I had found perfectly sufficient for identifying all the tropical birds there. I will note here, as I have in the past, that travelers not already familiar with North American migrants would be well-advised to supplement Rafaelle with something that addresses these families in more detail.
In the descriptions below life birds will be represented by all capital letters. I generally mention a bird only the first time it is seen on a trip, and then omit to list it in connection with later appearances, thereby avoiding innumerable repetitions of such unavoidable (if charming) birds as bananaquit and loggerhead kingbird.
Saturday, February twenty-eighth: A trouble-free trip had me arrive in Kingston airport shortly after 1:00. I immediately picked up my rental car and started the drive to Port Antonio, on the opposite shore, taking a route through the interior and skirting the end of the Blue Mountains. I was dismayed to learn that the trip would take about two and a half hours. The road was well-paved but very twisty, and the locals drive it at wholly unreasonable speed, so by the end I was pretty wiped out. Before I left Kingston I had already spotted magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis), turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), and GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLES (Quiscalus niger).
Eventually I arrived in one piece at the Goblin Hill Villas, several kilometers east of town. On my way to my villa I noted a pair of WHITE-CHINNED THRUSHES (Turdus aurantius), which proved to be frequent tenants of the villa lawns in the late afternoons. My villa was at the end of the building and thus jutted into a remnant patch of forest; there was even a birdbath at the edge of my villa’s porch. This facilitated a good deal of idle birdwatching!
Exhausted, I drove back and forth looking for a restaurant, adding only Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) to my list of sightings. Finally I found a place in town to eat. By the time I was done it was dark out. That night a mosquito in my room kept me up; every time I turned on the light it went to ground and I could not find it. I will say that if one had been standing within earshot of my villa around 3 a.m., there might have been heard a resounding smack of palm against wall followed by a bloodcurdling ululation of triumph.
Monday, March first: I chose to do some easy birding in the morning around the villa. My first find was a male black-throated blue warbler (Dendroica caerulescens), who was also getting relief from the northern winter by vacationing in Jamaica. We thought we recognized each other from Whiskey Hollow and we danced around the fact that neither of us remembered the other’s name. Next I checked the several hummingbird feeders around the villa office atrium, turning up a dramatic JAMAICAN MANGO (Anthracothorax mango), resplendent in its shimmery indigo finery, and then the even more dramatic STREAMERTAIL (the black-billed subspecies found on the eastern end of the island) (Trochilus polytmus) with the long trailing tail feathers for which it is named.
Other birds present on the grounds were bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD (Tyrannus caudifasciatus), white-crowned pigeon (Columba leucocephala), JAMAICAN STRIPE-HEADED TANAGER (Spindalis nigricephala), the ubiquitous American redstart (Setophaga ruticella), a Catharus thrush (apparently an uncommon sighting in Jamaica; this was probably a grey-cheeked but I did not get a sufficient look to pin it down as to species), JAMAICAN WOODPECKER (Melanerpes radiolatus), ORANGEQUIT (Euneornis campestris), Zenaida dove (Zenaida aurita), SAD FLYCATCHER (Myiarchus barbirostris), JAMAICAN ORIOLE (Icterus leucopteryx), Cape May warbler (Dendroica tigrina), and Northern parula (Parula americana).
I spent most of the day enjoying the nearby sands of Frenchman’s Cove. That afternoon I took a walk up the hill from the villas, finding a pair of American kestrels (Falco sparverius) of the Jamaican race - the male looking far too dark, and the female pure white on her belly. Back near the villas I found a pair of RING-TAILED PIGEONS (Columba caribaea) in a tree.
Tuesday the second: I rose before the sun and headed for Ecclesdown Road. On the way on the A3 I started up a barn owl (Tyto alba) which landed on the telephone wires and allowed me to stop and enjoy its unearthly mystery.
As usually happens in unfamiliar terrain, it took me a while to find the road I wanted, and as it turned out I stopped before getting into the best habitat. Nevertheless, I found JAMAICAN EUPHONIA (Euphonia jamaica), JAMAICAN VIREO (Vireo modestus), common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), common ground-dove (Columbina passerina), JAMAICAN CROWS (Corvus jamaicensis), the only WHITE-EYED THRUSH (Turdus jamaicensis) of the trip, various flying parrots of either the black- or yellow-billed persuasions, and heard-only rufous-throated solitaires. At one point a bird with a long flat tail flew across the road at my approach and disappeared into the foliage; I knew it was a cuckoo but it was not until I could study some photos on the Internet back at the hotel that I realized the view I’d had of just the back of the tail was sufficient for diagnostic purposes - it had been a CHESTNUT-BELLIED CUCKOO (Hyetornis pluvialis). Fortunately I would have a better look at the species on a later day.
The habitat along Ecclesdown Road is primary forest, one of the more accessible patches of forest left in Jamaica. Unfortunately from the valley below the road I could often hear the dismal sound of encroaching agriculture.
Returning to the villa I spotted a buteo, and for the first time saw Buteo jamaicensis in the lands for which it was named. Back at the villa a few olive-throated parakeets (Aratinga nana) came screeching overhead. That night I heard a Jamaican owl call from not far off, but it could not be seen.
Wednesday the third: A morning return to Ecclesdown Road, in better habitat but getting a slightly late start, began slow but then yielded GREATER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH (Loxigilla violacea) and the first of several whinnying RUFOUS-TAILED FLYCATCHERS (Myiarchs validus) in the same spot and almost the same field of view. I soon found a cryptic small bird up in the canopy which gave a call different from those I had heard before, and I speculated it was a Jamaican elaenia, but I could not make out the diagnostic details and I was unable to find a recording of the call online.
A short walk down the road led to some flowering brush tenanted by several VERVAIN HUMMINGBIRDS (Mellisuga minima), second-smallest bird in the world, dramatic in their minuscule perfection. The tree standing above also yielded an ARROWHEAD WARBLER (Dendroica pharetra). Walking on, a prairie warbler appeared, and the first of two or three Jamaican lizard-cuckoos sang but did not reveal itself. By this time the parrots were starting to become active and I had good studies of a BLACK-BILLED PARROT (Amazona agilis) at the top of a nearby tree. Finally I stumbled on a JAMAICAN TODY (Todus todus), colorful and bold, which came close to study me and never shied away; as often happens in birding, after so long not seeing one, todies started to appear at every turn.
A bird that dropped from the bank to the road surface ahead of me proved to be a YELLOW-SHOULDERED GRASSQUIT (Loxipasser anoxanthus). A pair of parrots flew past in the valley and although I had only a few moment’s glance through the binoculars, the bright color of the bills marked them as YELLOW-BILLED PARROTS (Amazona collaria), the only ones I would get decent looks at. A small raptor sitting in a tree and causing much excitement among the kingbirds turned out to be a merlin (Falco columbaria).
Finally, heavy rustling in a tree led me to a trio of JAMAICAN BLACKBIRDS (Nesopsar negirrimus), among the most elusive and scarce of the Jamaican endemics (laying aside those species presumed to be extinct, of course).
Bird activity had died down and I returned to the villa for breakfast. While eating I noticed an ovenbird visiting the ground around the birdbath. I then went to Frenchman’s Cove for another lie in the sun; on the banks of the stream leading down to the beach I noted a yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) and a juvenile little blue heron (Egretta caerulea).
Driving around later I saw white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica) in Boston Bay and the first (!) rock doves (Columba livia) of the trip in Port Antonio. That evening I stopped by a location where I had been told Jamaican owl could be seen. A dark shape winged in when it was nearly dark; it was certainly an owl, almost unquestionably the Jamaican owl, but hardly the stuff of which life sightings are made. Unfortunately it did not call so I was not willing to add it to the list, and I was unwilling to use faked calls to lure it into announcing itself.
Friday the fifth: I returned yet again to Ecclesdown Road as there was a major endemic that I had not yet spotted, this time arriving at the right habitat at the right early hour. Nevertheless, things there were fairly quiet, and after a while of trudging around I became somewhat discouraged. I had not yet had a good look at either cuckoo and had not seen one species at all. Then lightning struck: a heavy piece of foliage fell from a tree ahead of me onto the road surface, shockingly loud in the general piece. It brought me up short and something hidden to my left reacted with a cuckoo-like call. Peering into the shade of the tree, I noted a plump dove shape in silhouette. After a few moments’ study and growing optimism, my suspicions were confirmed when the bird turned its pale-grey head to show a helmet-like crest. It was indeed the other of the two difficult Jamaican endemics, CRESTED QUAIL-DOVE (Geotrygon versicolor). It took a few measured paces along the branch it was on but otherwise gave me all the time I wanted to enjoy it.
Not long after, I had better and clearer looks at an arrowhead warbler. Then a large bird sailed across the road and perched up within view; at first I thought I had found the other cuckoo species, but in fact it was another chestnut-bellied cuckoo. This time I was able to see the bird clearly and for a good space of time in several different perches.
Eventually I returned to the villas, where an olive-throated parakeet fed at the top of a tree hard by my villa, giving me my first decent study of the species not in flight.
Saturday the sixth: Driving back from Port Antonio to Kingston, I stopped at a bridge over the Rio Grande, where I found American coot (Fulica americana), snowy egret (Egretta thula), reddish egret (Egretta rufescens), great blue heron (Ardea herodias), great egret (Ardea alba), tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor), and common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus).
The return trip home was uneventful and actually got me back in about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. It was a wonderful vacation, and just what the doctor ordered. Also, since I’d left a few endemics unlocated, I had that many more reasons to one day come back to Jamaica.