8 - 17 March 1996
by Marcia & Ron Braun
The prospect of 26 endemics on an island the size of Connecticut, coupled with recent reports that made it sound as if ALL might be possible in one trip, made us decide to give Jamaica a go. Pre-trip preparation included checking travel guidebooks (Jamaica: A Visitor's Guide, 3rd Ed. by Harry S. Pariser was particularly useful), calling to reserve the first and last nights' lodgings and a car reservation (Libra Car Rental (1-809-953-2093) - Suzuki Swift hatchback @ US$511 for 9 days, plus US$50 in cash for Kingston drop-off). We studied trip reports from Craig Faanes (available from author), Mark Oberle (ABA Sales), & Gail Mackiernan (BirdChat 4/10/95). Fieldguides used were: Birds of Jamaica (Downer/Sutton) & Birds of the West Indies (Bond).
Friday, March 8
We left Houston with tropical plants uncovered and predictions for the mid-20's Saturday night. The Delta flight to Atlanta and particularly the Air Jamaica flight to Montego Bay (MB) were full, mostly with college students for spring break. It was raining heavily as we deplaned on the tarmac in MB, and it rained on and off till early evening. Customs was slow mayhem. We exchanged money at J$37.10 to US$1 (Atlanta airport rate was J$33.63). Travel information is in the customs area. I asked lots of questions, but neglected to ask directions to Orange River Lodge (ORL); we incorrectly thought the map would be sufficient. Kim Pierce of Libra met us at the gate and took us to the rental office just outside the airport.
By 5pm we were underway, but spent most of the next hour lost in MB. We were already discovering that whenever we stopped to ask directions or consult the map, people started asking us for money or offering to get in and take us wherever we were going -- even if they didn't have any idea where the place was. With some help from a friendly gas station customer we found the road to John's Hall (labeled "Badly Potholed" on our map) and arrived at ORL at about 6:30pm. We visited with the only other quests (nonbirder German couple who had been to Rocklands to feed the Kolobri), drank a couple Red Stripes, had a chicken dinner, photographed a giant beetle, and went to bed. In retrospect we should have gone owling, but exhaustion ruled.
Saturday, March 9
We birded the ORL grounds and road from 6:45 to 10:30 am. It was quite birdy & pleasant. We found J crows, streamertails, parakeets, J mangos, vervain hummers, J woodpeckers, J elaenia, sad flycatcher, J todys, J becards, J euphonias, J vireos, greater Antillean bullfinches, orangequits, J orioles and others.
We had chosen to stay at ORL as it appeared fairly close by back road to Windsor Cave (WC). This turned out to be a mistake, as the back road was horrible and confusing to follow. We finally arrived at WC after 2pm. Franklin was not at the entrance hut so we wandered off down the trail to the right of the water tank. Black-billed parrots were in the trees near the meadows. We walked to the cave (right at the fork), where we took refuge from pouring rain. We finally gave up on the rain stopping and drove back via the coast to ORL, birding as best we could in the rain. After dining alone, we drove the entrance road looking for potoos and owls. Near the river below the lodge, a Jamaican owl flew up from a fence post. When we played the tape, it flew over us and called several times but never came in -- not a very satisfactory look.
Sunday, March 10
Left room at 3:45am and checked a large tree at the entrance gate where an employee assured us that THE owl was "always there" at 4:30 am. Drove the roads slowly, but no luck. Lori's 24-hour cafe -- and everything else -- was closed on Sunday morning. Arrived at WC around 5:50 am, with no owls or potoos, waited for birding light and then walked the water tank trail, taking the left fork. The mosquitoes were horrendous. Upon our return, we walked to Windsor House and made arrangement with Sugarbelly and Jackie to spend the night for US$20. Sugarbelly said the potoo shows up at 7-7:30pm and THE owl at 9:30 -10pm.
Headed for Rocklands, arriving at 1:40pm (opens at 2pm). Janice, the assistant, let us in early. We were the only ones there, so we enjoyed photographing the streamertails, J mangos, grassquits, saffron finches, J orioles, warblers, bananaquits, ground doves and orangequits; then visited with Lisa Salmon, the 91-year old matriarch, at her window. Lisa was disappointed that we couldn't be there in the morning for the guide to take on a birdwalk of the woods back of the house. She proudly told us that she had gotten Robert Sutton started birding. The J$240/each was worth it.
Since no evening meal is available at Windsor House, we picked up dinner in MB. We tried to remain objective when the rain started at dusk. At 7:10 Sugarbelly rushed us out into the rain to see the potoo in the tree out back -- great! Because of the rain, he was vague about whether he could show us the owl. At 10 we headed out between showers to look for the owl on our own; without success. Despite our room being open to mosquitoes, fireflies, and a welcome hungry bat, we had no problems sleeping. We tried driving the entrance road at 4 am; finding 3 potoos but no owls.
Monday, March 11
After Jackie gave us a breakfast of coffee, toast, juice, and oatmeal, we walked the same trail as yesterday. Good looks at ring-tailed pigeon, and crippling looks at a crested quail-dove which posed about 10 feet from the trail, with a boulder for a backdrop. We heard many parrots, but only got a quick look of one yellow-billed perched high in a treetop. It would be easy to miss either parrot here, since in one afternoon we saw lots, and then returned another afternoon and 2 mornings and only heard them while we were in heavy forest and couldn't see for the trees. We did see several of each cuckoo.
Late morning we headed to Buff Bay. A wrong turn in Port Maria put us on an exceedingly potholed alternate road. After refusing all offers of ganja and once more finding the main road, we stopped briefly at Sonrise Beach ponds (no yellow-breasted crakes responded). Four-thirty found us at Crystal Springs, a pleasant oasis (hot water for US$40; breakfast included, and dinner (escoviche and beer) for J$520). We were offered dinner if we could come immediately, as the restaurant closed at 5. After a quick shower we shared our dinner with a black-throated blue warbler sitting on the back of a chair at our table (he passed on the fish) and a louisiana waterthrush checking for scraps underneath our table. After dinner we wandered the grounds with beer in hand till dark. Without the dinner schedule, it would have been great for photography. Ruddy quail-doves, caribbean doves, streamertails, etc. posing in the evening light. We though we heard THE owl call around 7pm, but couldn't find it, and even spent time sitting in the yard around 3:30am looking for an owl or bats -- whichever was dropping things on our tin roof.
Tuesday, March 12
Up at 6 am and enjoyed the hot water again. We walked the grounds a bit -- not nearly as birdy as the evening before, although we did have close looks at black-billed parrots. Unfortunately we couldn't wait for the 9 am breakfast. At 8 we hit the road to San San, east of Port Antonio, for black-billed streamertail. A small road beside the Hotel Fern Hill led to a flowering tree and immediate contact with a black-billed.
Lots of down-hill bicyclists and bike-delivery trucks on the very narrow road up to Hardwar Gap made us ready for a leisurely 12:30 lunch at the Gap restaurant atop the Blue Mountains (US$36 but good service). The Gap is open from 10am to 5 pm weekdays and till 6pm on Saturdays. They offered to open earlier if we made breakfast reservations. The Greenhills Guesthouse back down the road was padlocked but Mrs. Henry, who lives at the large pink house, told us that her son Lloyd, the caretaker of Greenhills, had gone to Kingston to the doctor and would be back later. We declined her offer to see the Guesthouse, deciding to go birding instead. We went to Hollywell National Park and walked the Waterfall Trail. Despite being practically pushed off the narrow trail by overhanging ferns, we found Jamaican pewee, rufous-throated solitaire, and one white-eyed thrush, but no Jamaican blackbirds. We picked up Red-stripes at the restaurant before they closed and headed back to Greenhills. We passed Mr. Henry on the road; he gave us the keys to Greenhills and told us to settle in. We leisurely walked the road, finding another White-eyed Thrush and more Blue Mountain Vireos, etc. We did our list, visited with Mrs. Henry, bought coffee from her, then ate our Vienna sausages and Easter bread dinner, before Lloyd showed up at 8pm. He had left at 5:30am for the doctor and walked four hours to get home. Lloyd turned on the hot water heater, promising hot for morning, but we weren't impressed by the temp, low water pressure, or hand-held sprayer and bath tub -- no shower.
Wednesday, March 13
We skipped a bath, drank coffee, and paid Lloyd (US$25 each! plus US$3 for the coffee). Slowly birding up the road rewarded us with our target. A Jamaican blackbird flew over us, gave an oriole-like call and landed in plain sight some 50 yards away. At 7:25am the Blue Mountains were complete. As we headed down at 9:15, going slowly for pictures and more Jamaican Pewees, we needed but two more Jamaican endemics, yellow-shouldered grassquit and THE owl.
We spent the afternoon driving to Portland Ridge to look for Bahama mockingbird. We found stolid flycatcher, but only northern mockingbirds, although we didn't drive all the way to the lighthouse. The scrub mesquite and cactus, filled with flycatchers, parakeets and NA warblers, was strange and fun.
We found the Astra Hotel in Mandeville at 6 and were glad to agree to their basic room for US$70. We called Sutton at 7:30 and he told us he had some other Texans there looking for THE owl. He suggested we come over at 6:30am for y-s grassquits in his yard. We were the only diners in the two-choices-of-chicken-only restaurant at the Astra.
Thursday, March 14
We met Robert Sutton at 6 and a pair of y-s grassquits soon showed up in his yard as he had predicted. After casually strolling some of the trails at Marshall's Pen (MP), we headed back into town to find something less dreadful than the Astra. The Kariba Kariba Guest House (US$45 for a room with a private bath), just off the bypass and 5 min. from MP, was more to our liking. At 2pm we returned for a trip with guests at MP (the Rollins from Midland,Texas) to see West Indian whistling ducks. An hour's drive later we arrived at the Black River Upper Morass. To everyone's surprise there were a record high 60+ WI whistling ducks, perhaps the rarest and least-protected ducks in the world. Robert encouraged us to contact anyone who might be influential in getting the area declared a RAMSAR site. He also pointed out that these ducks have a large, pale blue wing patch, differing from the Cayman Island race which has smaller, grayish patches. We spent a leisurely afternoon looking for yellow-breasted crake, which Robert hasn't seen in Jamaica in years. Back at MP the group walked the entrance road trying for THE owl. A young bird called from the same spot as the night before, but we saw nothing. The Rollins were flying back the next morning, but Robert asked us to return the next evening for another go.
Friday, March 15
An early start got us back to the Portland Lighthouse road for Bahama mockingbird, along with the usual Northerns. We tried for plain pigeon, which Sutton says roost there, but only heard white-crowned. It seemed much hotter than in the afternoon two days before, so we were back at the room for a 12:15 cold shower and clean clothes in an effort to control chigger damage. We enjoyed very good jerk chicken at the Charcoal. As we started to return to MP in late afternoon, we discovered we had a flat tire and the spare appeared questionable. Fortunately Derrick O'Connor, the Kariba manager, happened by and suggested where we might find someone who would repair it, since it was after 5. We made our way through a major traffic jam to the garage where Jeffrey and son had it fixed in 15 minutes -- J$60!
As we turned into MP a little before 6, we couldn't help noticing (and feeling) the huge, really, really huge set of speakers in the entrance road; a regular Friday night phenomena according to the Suttons. We, Robert and Ann Sutton, and two banding assistants staying at MP set out down a path to where the young owl had been heard previously. As we walked, rain threatened and it seemed every step intensified the noise emanating from the speakers. After what seemed an endless dusk on this, our last birding night, darkness fell and a young owl soon squeaked in response to the tape. Within less than a minute the adults answered also and Robert had one in the q-beam, providing everyone with marvelous views. A potoo, which had called earlier, flew directly overhead, then another owl was spot-lighted in a further tree. An absolutely stunning finish to our trip! I think only Ron and I were surprised. A vigorous discussion on the way back rounded out the evening. Ann explained that the "fireflies" we were so admiring were actually click beetles! The fireflies come in summer -- 45 endemic species, according to one of our pamphlets. Ron and I celebrated 26 Jamaican endemics over dinner at the Chinese International Restaurant, which Derrick had recommended.
Saturday, March 16
We stayed in bed till 6:45, walked around the neighborhood looking at birds, and had breakfast on the front porch at 8:30. Kariba "yard birds" included common ground-dove, white-winged dove, common yellowthroat, black-and-white warbler, northern parula, Jamaican oriole, yellow-faced and black-faced and yellow-shouldered grassquits, olive-throated parakeets, orangequits. At 11 we said our good-byes and left, arriving at the Indies Hotel near 1pm, where we collapsed in the air-conditioning. After a nap, we enjoyed pizza and beer at the grill across the street and decided, since it was now after 3pm, to go to Hope Botanical Gardens rather than drive to Yallahs for a possible plain pigeon. The crowd of young people at the gardens changed our minds, so we returned to the Indies Hotel to do our lists and pack. (Derrick had recommended the Maya Hotel on the north side of Kingston, but we didn't check it out.)
General observations and comments:
Ask for directions to your hotel at the airport tourist information desk -- finding people who can give directions along the way may be difficult. Jamaica is very short on signs, so finding your way anywhere is a challenge. Maps are often inaccurate and certainly not detailed enough for back road travel.
Libra Car Rental (953-2093) was reliable and Joe Hylton did all that he said he would -- such as driving us to the airport for the early-bird flight.
Bring food. We ate the granola bars, etc. from home for many meals since breakfast is late, and dinner is early.
Most places to stay list prices in US dollars, and it actually is cheaper to pay in dollars. We only used Jamaican money for smaller purchases such as gas and some food. Even when using a charge card, the amount is done in USDs, so what you sign is what you get.
We didn't go to Mavis Bank or other coffee producers that give tours, so we don't know about Blue Mountain coffee prices there. The airport seemed to have the cheapest -- 180J for 10 or 12 oz. vs. $237.50J for 8 oz. at a grocery store, and $300J for 16 oz. from Mrs. Henry at Green Hills.
We enjoyed Orange River Lodge. The rooms were very nice, it was one of the few places we stayed with hot water, and the birding on the area roads was great. However, it is definitely not convenient to Windsor Cave. The map makes it look like it's only a short distance by the small roads over to Windsor. The roads are not driveable -- it would take days with 4-wheel drive, from the little bit we saw. Your only choice is to take the main road along the coast and it takes a couple of hours. A place on the other side of Montego Bay would be more convenient for getting to and from Windsor Cave. We had called a week ahead for reservations, but definitely didn't need them. They appeared to have very few guests. It was the best value of the places we stayed, but the 'Badly Potholed' road getting there was a bit slow.
It's probably a good idea to bird Windsor Cave in the afternoon, stay there, and bird again the next morning. That way, weather permitting, you can get the Potoo and have a good chance for the Owl.
Definitely go to Mandeville. Robert and Ann Sutton sometimes have rooms to rent at Marshall's Pen. They were full when we were there, but they invited us to bird their land and gave us lots of information about where to find specific birds we needed. One of our guidebooks claimed that they no longer had rooms, but they assured us that they welcome birders. If we had had their correct phone number, we should have called them from home and made arrangements. Birding with them was a trip highlight. Their new phone number is 962-2260.
We also recommend the Kariba Kariba Guesthouse in Mandeville. The manager, Derrick O'Connor, was very helpful, the rooms were quiet and comfortable, and he knew that we were there to see Jamaica's endemics. He also has a tour bus and can arrange group travel. Tel. (809) 962-8006, Fax (809) 962-5502.
Except for the Suttons' place, we really didn't need reservations anywhere. We found most places by just showing up. We only called two places from the US, and one of those, the Mayfair in Kingston, confirmed reservations by phone, but gave the room to a group anyway.
We would have enjoyed more time at Crystal Springs at Buff Bay. I would have liked to try to photo the Ruddy Quail-Doves and other birds that were so tame there.
Roads were generally worse than in Mexico. Signs almost don't exist. We asked lots of questions and had similar problems to Mexico. That is, people would tell us the road went there, but wouldn't volunteer information about a better route. Some of that was probably due to the fact that they didn't drive. Jamaica has buses but they are evidently very bad, since the guidebooks explain that they only run when full. Kids try to hitch to school. It looked like they showed up whenever they got a ride, since we saw kids wearing school uniforms along the roads all morning. Mrs. Henry, at Green Hills, said that hitching was a problem. Often the news story of the day was about missing children.
To us, the standard of living seemed higher than in Mexico. Many more people had cars. We saw a few slums, but nothing compared to Mexico.
[I just wanted to add a comment to Marcia Braun's Jamaica information. An alternative place to stay which is in relatively close proximity to Windsor Caveis Good Hope Plantation. This is not cheap but it is a very pleasant place to stay just adjacent to the Cockpit country and only about 30-45 minutes from the cave. One can see Potoo on the fence posts at the plantation entrance at night.It has one of the best views out a shower window that I have encountered!
If anyone is interested in Blue Mountain coffee, there is a small plantation owner right up by Hardwar Gap who would be happy to Federal Express coffee from his plantation. It is not cheap either, but he does it right (roasts it the same day he Fed Exs it) and it is excellent. I usually receive it the followingday. If anyone is interested, please feel free to email for the information.
We really enjoyed Jamaica but the roads are, as Marcia noted, pretty abysmal. It takes twice as long to get anywhere as you would surmise from looking at a map.
Many of the Jamaican endemics are common. We worried about the Crested Quail Dove, Jamaican Blackbird, and Jamaican Owl. Others we generally saw in pretty good numbers.
Birds in all-caps are Jamaican endemics
Location codes are at the end of the list.
Scientific Name Common Name # Locations
Tachybaptus dominicus Least Grebe 4
Podilymbus podiceps Pied-billed Grebe 78
Fregata magnificens Magnificent Frigatebird 3
Pelecanus occidentalis Brown Pelican 2
Dendrocygna arborea W. Indian Whist-Duck 60 BRUM
Anas discors Blue-winged Teal 20
Egretta tricolor Tricolored Heron 12
Egretta caerulea Little Blue Heron 8
Egretta thula Snowy Egret 2
Ardea herodias Great Blue Heron 7
Casmerodius albus Great Egret 88
Bubulcus ibis Cattle Egret 407
Butorides virescens Green Heron 16
Nyctanassa violacea Yellow-cr. Night-Heron 1
Nycticorax nycticorax Black-cr. Night-Heron 10
Ixobrychus exilis Least Bittern 15
Plegadis falcinellus Glossy Ibis 65
Cathartes aura Turkey Vulture 179
Pandion haliaetus Osprey 3
Buteo jamaicensis Red-tailed Hawk 4
Falco sparverius American Kestrel 15
Falco columbarius Merlin 2
Porphyrio martinicus Purple Gallinule 12
Gallinula chloropus Common Moorhen 47
Fulica americana American Coot 4
Fulica caribaea Caribbean Coot 16
Aramus guarauna Limpkin 1 +3h
Jacana spinosa Northern Jacana 21
Tringa flavipes Lesser Yellowlegs 1
Tringa macularia Spotted Sandpiper 1
Catoptrophorus semipalmatus Willet 1
Himantopus mexicanus Black-necked Stilt 9
Pluvialis squatarola Gray Plover 2
Larus atricilla Laughing Gull 1
Sterna caspia Caspian Tern 3
Columba livia Rock Dove 10
Columba leucocephala White-crowned Pigeon 8 +h
Columba caribaea RING-TAILED PIGEON 2 +2h WC
Zenaida macroura Mourning Dove 2
Zenaida aurita Zenaida Dove 20
Zenaida asiatica White-winged Dove 32
Columbina passerina Common Ground-Dove 69
Leptotila jamaicensis Caribbean Dove 8
Geotrygon versicolor CRESTED QUAIL-DOVE 5 WC
Geotrygon montana Ruddy Quail-Dove 4
Aratinga nana Olive-throated Parakeet 89
Forpus passerinus Green-rumped Parrotlet 18
Amazona collaria YELLOW-BILLED PARROT 1 WC
Amazona agilis BLACK-BILLED PARROT 20 WC, CS
Hyetornis pluvialis CHESTNUT-BELLIED CUCKOO 3 +3h WC, MP
Saurothera vetula JAMAICAN LIZARD-CUCKOO 3 +2h WC
Crotophaga ani Smooth-billed Ani 117
Pseudoscops grammicus JAMAICAN OWL 2 +2h MP
Nyctibius jamaicensis Northern Potoo 5 +h WC, MP
Tachornis phoenicobia Antillean Palm-Swift 14
Anthracothorax mango JAMAICAN MANGO 10 OR, R, PR, Brum
Trochilus polytmus STREAMERTAIL 87 everywhere
Mellisuga minima Vervain Hummingbird 6 ORL
Megaceryle alcyon Belted Kingfisher 1
Todus todus JAMAICAN TODY 20 widely distributed
Melanerpes radiolatus JAMAICAN WOODPECKER 13 +6h widespread
Myiopagis cotta JAMAICAN ELAENIA 1 ORL
Contopus pallidus JAMAICAN PEWEE 5 HG, MP
Myiarchus barbirostris SAD FLYCATCHER 9 ORL,WC, MP,BRUM
Myiarchus validus RUFOUS-TAILED FLYCATCHER 5 WC
Myiarchus stolidus Stolid Flycatcher 7 PR
Tyrannus caudifasciatus Loggerhead Kingbird 68
Pachyramphus niger JAMAICAN BECARD 4 ORL, MP
Corvus jamaicensis JAMAICAN CROW 43 ORL, WC, PR
Vireo modestus JAMAICAN VIREO 13 +4h widespread
Vireo osburni BLUE MOUNTAIN VIREO 4 +1h WC, HG
Myadestes genibarbis Rufous-throated Solitaire 3 +2h HG
Turdus aurantius WHITE-CHINNED THRUSH 47 everywhere
Turdus jamaicensis WHITE-EYED THRUSH 3 +h HG
Mimus polyglottos Northern Mockingbird 80
Mimus gundlachii Bahama Mockingbird 3 PR
Sturnus vulgaris Common Starling 7
Stelgidopteryx serripennis N. Rough-winged Swallow 25
Hirundo rustica Barn Swallow 3
Hirundo fulva Cave Swallow 6
Parula americana Northern Parula 26
Dendroica petechia Yellow Warbler 2
Dendroica tigrina Cape May Warbler 2
Dendroica caerulescens Black-throated Blue Warbler 28
Dendroica discolor Prairie Warbler 24
Dendroica palmarum Palm Warbler 4
Dendroica pharetra ARROW-HEADED WARBLER 3 WC, HG
Mniotilta varia Black-and-white Warbler 9
Setophaga ruticilla American Redstart 23
Helmitheros vermivorus Worm-eating Warbler 1
Seiurus aurocapillus Ovenbird 8
Seiurus noveboracensis Northern Waterthrush 6
Seiurus motacilla Louisiana Waterthrush 2
Geothlypis trichas Common Yellowthroat 6
Coereba flaveola Bananaquit 74
Spindalis zena Stripe-headed Tanager 37
Euphonia jamaica JAMAICAN EUPHONIA 4 ORL, PR
Sicalis flaveola Saffron Finch 2 R
Tiaris olivacea Yellow-faced Grassquit 52
Tiaris bicolor Black-faced Grassquit 217
Loxipasser anoxanthus YELLOW-SHOULDERED GRASSQUIT 4 MP, Man
Loxigilla violacea Greater Antillean Bullfinch 23 widespread
Euneornis campestris ORANGEQUIT 24 everywhere
Icterus leucopteryx Jamaican Oriole 22 widespread
Nesopsar nigerrimus JAMAICAN BLACKBIRD 1 HG
Quiscalus niger Greater Antillean Grackle 150
BRUM Black River Upper Morass
CR Crystal Springs
HG Hardwar Gap
MP Marshall's Pen
ORL Orange River Lodge
PR Portland Ridge
WC Windsor Cave
Marcia & Ron Braun