by Ellen Paul
We spent 6 days in Jamaica over the holidays and can't wait to return to cover the eastern part of the island and to get that damned Crested Quail Dove (more on that later). There are very good trip reports in the BIRDCHAT archives, but we want to relate our experiences anyway, in part because we feel that prior trip reports have made too much of the supposed crime problem in Jamaica and didn't really express how great birding in Jamaica can be. The issue about crime, in particular, seems to be one without much basis. The crime in Jamaica is apparently at its lowest rate in 30 years. I would guess that in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and other tourist areas, you are probably a target, but that is true in every tourist town. Otherwise, we never felt in jeopardy - no more so than anywhere else in the world.
The point I want to emphasize is that if birders keep avoiding Jamaica, the only tourism in Jamaica will be of the variety involving sunworshippers who barricade themselves behind the high walls of the resorts. Although the places we visited are not dependent on birders and ecotourists per se, there is certainly a need to keep the flow of birders going so that organizations that influence land use planning in Jamaica (such as the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust and BirdLife Jamaica) can point to the interest of birders in Jamaica as a reason for protecting bird habitat. We saw not one other birder during our six-day stay.
Make your life much easier by buying the Jamaican Handbook (Moontravel books). This travel series is incredible - the level of detail and accuracy is extraordinary (although there were a few whoppers with regard to bird life - we wrote to them to let them know that they really have to have the flora and fauna sections reviewed before they publish the next edition; they also said that the cabins in Hollywell Park were J$300, rather than J$3500 - a significant difference). The books are also well-written and make for interesting, enjoyable reading.
Well, we started off by flying into Montego Bay and renting a car to drive to our first stop - Marshall's Pen Guesthouse and Bird Sanctuary, owned by Ann and Robert Sutton. Robert, of course, is the co-author of the Birds of Jamaica, a must for this trip. They have a 300-yr old home with a separate guesthouse consisting of several bedrooms, each with a private bath, a lounge, and a self-catering kitchen. The fee is US$30 per night, per person. The guesthouse is very comfortable, with hot water. Electricity is on only in the evening (until about 10 p.m.). Reservations must be made in advance. Contact the Suttons at email@example.com or (876)904-5454 (fax is 964-6383). You may not receive an immediate response as Ann may be out in the field on a research project or Robert may be away leading a birding tour.
Note that the Suttons won't have time to guide you around the property, but you really won't need help except to find that owl (see below). Robert has a good spotlight and if he is available, may work on the owl with you. If you are having trouble finding something, they will give you suggestions on where to look. Robert does lead bird tours, so if you want to arrange a bird tour of Jamaica, you may want to contact him. I don't know what his fees are.
Everyone was correct in saying that the Esso maps are great. They cost less than $1 and are accurate and highly detailed. Be warned, though, that what looks like a t-intersection on the map may not really look like a t-intersection on the road, and that there are many unmarked dirt roads that aren't on the map. Intersections aren't marked, or are marked after you've already flipped the coin. Also, there may be several roads that go where you need to go. Always take the primary road if possible, and if there are two primary roads, take the one that has been recommended to you. We ignored that advice on one occasion, and it worked out fine, but ordinarily, there is a reason why people suggest one route over another. Furthermore, it isn't always clear if people mean miles or kilometers. The map was in miles but the car trip odometer was in kilometers, as were road signs.
To get there from Montego Bay: come out of the airport, go into the traffic circle, and follow Queen's Drive, which is the A1. Don't worry if you miss Queen's Drive and end up driving through Montego Bay. If you followed Sunset Boulevard, just go to the end and turn left onto Kent/Gloucestershire. Eventually, you'll come to the same place, which is a second traffic circle. From there, follow St. James/Barnett, which is the A1, towards Reading. Or, you can take Howard Boulevard to the end, turn left onto Alice Eldemire Drive, and rejoin the A1 where Eldemire Drive ends. Actually, this is probably easier, because you avoid the mess in the residential/business area at the end of Barnett.
At Reading, turn south (left) onto the B8. I think the sign pointed said "Anchovy" Cross the island by staying on the B8, going through Haughton Grove, Haddo, and Ferris Cross (again, we assumed that the B8 was recommended over the B7, which goes across more directly, for a reason). At Ferris Cross, pick up the A2 and go east along the coast. When you get to Black River, the A2 heads north and goes inland. Follow it through the Bamboo Avenue and Santa Cruz, Lovely Point, Gosehn, Pepper, Butters, and Spur Tree. Soon, you will come to a circle. Take the first exit off the circle to Winston Jones Highway (I don't think there was a sign). Turn left (west) at a sign for the Somerset Quarry. There is a bus shelter at the corner with a sign saying "Mickletown Community Project". Go up a short hill to a T intersection, turn right, go around an s-bend (about 1 kilometer) to a pair of unmarked stone gates on your right (there is a small neighborhood bar on the left). Turn right through the gates and go down a dirt track about 1/2 kilometer - go past the buildings and up and around to your left.
A couple of days at Marshall's Pen will easily get you 1/2 or more of the Jamaican endemics. Sit in the garden, or walk through the wooded areas and cow pastures, and you will get: Jamaican Tody, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit (they often come to the oranges left out for the orioles), Red-billed Streamertail, Jamaican Potoo, White-chinned Thrush, Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Stripe-headed Tanager, Jamaican Bullfinch, Jamaican Vireo, Olive-throated Parakeet, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Vervain Hummingbird, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Stolid Flycatcher, Jamaican Beccard, Loggerhead Kingbird, White-eyed Thrush, Jamaican Euphonia, Jamaican Oriole, Antillean Palm Swift, Jamaican Peewee, Black-faced Grassquit, and Arrow-headed Warbler.
We also had Black and White Warbler, American Redstart, American Kestrel (very red birds), Turkey Vulture, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Parula, Prairie Warbler, Cattle Egret, Bananaquit, White-headed Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Least Grebe, Red-tailed Hawk.
A word about the Jamaican Owl. Yes, they are in the Sutton's garden. Yes, you can hear them calling. Don't count on seeing them. They love to hang out inside the bromeliads, of which there are many. We had three calling and couldn't find any of them. The next morning, we had one calling, identified the tree, walked right to it, and still couldn't find it. We finally did see it flying over.
We took a "short" drive (short in terms of kilometers; nothing is short in Jamaica in driving time. The roads weren't nearly as bad as those in Venezuela, but average speed on most is about 40kph. There are no shoulders, and the edges of the road tend to be crumbled or potholed. As a result, most people drive nearer to the center of the road. Most roads are twisty, which means you do lots of horn-honking before curves, and lots of last-minute edging over. Folks also overtake one another frequently, and with little room to spare) to the Elim Ponds.
Here we had Barn Owl on a roadside post, Black-winged Stilt, Tri-colored Heron, Northern Jacana, Moorhen, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, Pied-billed Grebe, Little Blue Heron, Osprey, Green Heron, Spotted Sandpiper, Common Snipe, Glossy Ibis, Purple Gallinule.
Endemics here were Greater Antillean Grackle and Caribbean Coot. Specials (though not endemic) were the three West Indian Whistling Ducks. Bring lots of bug juice - these are nocturnal ducks that only show up as the sun is going down and the mosquitos are swarming.
In theory, you can find the Crested Quail Dove in Marshall’s Pen, too. That is, assuming there really is such a thing as a Crested Quail Dove. More on that later.
One thing you can be sure of getting in Mandeville is cattle ticks. Many of them. Lots of very itchy bites all over the place. I don't think they carry any diseases, but they are really annoying.
Our next stop was Hollywell National Park, in the Blue and John Crow Mountains just above Kingston. The guesthouse is apparently closed (we don't know if that was temporary or permanent). We stayed in the cabins in the park. They have two bedrooms, one with a double bed, one with two singles, a bathroom, a lounge with a huge stone fireplace and comfortable rattan furniture, and a self-catering kitchen. Rates were US$87 per night. Each door has three locks and each window has shutters with several locks, and then the windows themselves lock. There is a security guard on duty all night. Don't be alarmed if Mr. Duncan knocks on your door and be prepared to give him a few dollars to stop talking and go away. The view of Kingston and the harbor from the cabins is just incredible. Sit on your porch and watch the todies. Our only gripe was that the hot water wasn't working, and we didn't see any evidence that anyone cared or was making any effort to get it fixed.
Here, we hired a guide because although the trails in the park are well-marked, the park is only a very small area at the top of the mountain. To find other trails and roads, a guide is very helpful. We hired Dwight Pryce, a forest ranger with the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust. Contact JCDT to make both your reservations for the cabins and to hire a guide. You negotiate the rates for the guide yourself. The e-mail address for JCDT is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the park and surrounding area, we had the following endemics: Blue Mountain Vireo, Ring-tailed Pigeon, Jamaican Blackbird (incredibly good views of the bird sitting out in the open, preening), Arrow-headed Warbler, Jamaican Euphonia, Greater Antillian Elania. We also had Jamaican Vireo, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Wormeating Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Red-billed Streamertail (contrary to what the books say, you have to go much further east to get the Black-billed), Jamaican Peewee, White-eyed Thrush, White-chinned Thrush, Whitecollared Swift, Orangequit and Jamaican Bullfinch. A real treat was the Rufous-throated Solitaire. Sounds like a bellbird, pain in the rear to locate since the sound seems to be coming from everywhere. Go to the Hardwar Gap Café, just below the park (to the south) and have a great meal, watching the streamertails, warblers, and orangequits coming to the feeders and picking crumbs off the tables.
Dwight was kind enough to point out where other people had seen the Crested Quail Dove. Don't count on Swainson's Warbler without a tape.
It is cold in the mountains at night. They have good thermal blankets in the cabins, but you may need more. You will certainly need warm clothing once the sun goes down. You may be able to buy firewood at the ranger station.
Getting to Hollywell (from Mandeville): take the A2 (Winston Jones Highway) east through May Pen and Spanish Town. There is a bypass around Spanish Town which is easy to find - it is actually the A1. Continue into Kingston on the A1. You are heading for Papine on the far eastern end of Kingston. It becomes Washington Boulevard and then Dunrobin Avenue. Dunrobin ends at Constant Spring Road. Turn left and go down to Hope Road (note: you can't turn left from Constant Spring onto Hope - you either turn right a block before Hope and make a seies of lefts, or turn left after Hope and wind back to it). Take Hope Road all the way out to the end, then turn left onto Gordontown. Follow Gordontown Road straight up the hill, towards Strawberry Hill Resort, through Irishtown. Near the top, you end up in the parking lot of the military installation. Just go to the far end of the lot and continue on to the park.
Against all advice, we took the road out of the park north to Buff Bay so that we wouldn't have to double-back through Kingston and Spanish Town. Our reasoning was that there was much more forest to the north, and we'd have a better chance of finding the Crested Quail Dove. Well, the road wasn't as bad as people said. In fact, they are repairing it and doing a pretty good job, so the biggest problem was the lack of guard rails or barriers in some places (always the steepest, scariest places!) but otherwise, it was certainly driveable. I'd be leary of doing it after a rain as it would be very slick. There is more forest to the north, but it would be very hard to stop on this road as there are few places wide enough to pull over.
We drove west across the north coast, but found no cliffs and therefore, no tropic birds. We did have Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and Great Egrets (the latter two in the lagoon behind the Fisherman's Inn). Our next stop was Windsor Cave. We spent the late afternoon and night at Fisherman's Inn, a great little inn right on the highway. The rooms were pretty and comfortable, and the food was great. The rooms open onto a bioluminescent bay. There is a swimming pool out back. US$122 per night, including breakfast. From there, the Windsor Cave is about 45 minutes up a road with no signs (until the very last turn). Some of the road is fine. Some of the road isn't even road. There are some intersections where you just have to take a guess.
Here we barged in on Michael Schwartz, owner of the Windsor Greathouse, and Susan Koenig, who just finished her doctoral research on the Yellow-billed and Black-billed Parrots in another part of the island. Michael and Susan are attempting to establish a permanent research center at Windsor, and have started on an ambitious research project involving birds, invertebrates, bats, cave ecology, and botany. This isn't really a birding/ecotourism site, but you won't be chased away, either.
Here we had both parrots. Listen, that thing about the Black-billed Parrots having some red in the wing - some do, some don't. You really can't determine which one is which from the presence or absence of red. Susan has started some preliminary research on this and says that the red feathers don't correlate with age, breeding success. Interestingly enough, both members of a pair will either have red or both won't. There are no mixed pairs. She says that the vocalizations are different, but we didn't have a tape with us, and so couldn't rely on that. We finally just had to find birds perched where we could see the bill color. For some reason, it was a very quiet day. We had Jamaican Crow, Caribbean Dove, American Redstart, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo, Jamaican Tody, Orange-quit, Ruddy Quail Dove, Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Susan says that in the spring, she practically trips over Crested Quail Doves. Guess when we are going back to Jamaica?
We didn't bother trying to find the Barbecue Bottom Road, because we couldn't figure out from previous reports what the point was of trying to find and drive this road. Well, at least what the birding point was. If your purpose is to get across the island without having to double-back to the main road and then over to the road through Duncan Town, I suppose that makes some sense. Michael and Susan confirmed that there is no birding purpose to finding and driving this road.
Finally, we went to the Orange River Ranch, which has previously been called the Orange River Lodge. We don't know why the name was changed, but the signs all say Orange River Ranch. This place is really wonderful - beautiful, comfortable rooms, good food, good birding. Perfect habitat for Crested Quail Doves. Too bad nobody bothered to tell the doves! We had parrots -not sure which one, but we were assuming Yellow-billed because we were so far west - Jamaican Mango, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Smooth-billed Ani, Bananaquit, Red-billed Streamertail, Jamaican Crow, Olive-throated Parakeet, Caribbean Dove, Jamaican Euphonia, Jamaican Vireo, Jamaican Woodpecker, Zenaida Dove, Northern Parula, Orangequit, Jamaican Tody, White-crowned Pigeon, White-chinned Thrush, American Redstart, Ruddy Quail Dove, and American Kestrel - all in an hour or so in the evening and a couple of hours in the morning.
The phone number for the Orange River Ranch is (809) 979-3294. The address is P.O. Box 822, Montego Bay, P.O.I., St. James, Jamaica. Price was US$55 for a single room. The only problem with the ORR is that the rooms have these high ceilings and the noise transmits from one room to another. Even though the place was virtually empty, they put someone in the room next to us and we could hear every little sound. There is a security guard on duty all night.
To get to the ORR from Montego Bay - take either Queen's Drive or Gloucestershire to the east. Both will bring you to a traffic circle (the second circle if you are on Gloucestershire) that is just prior to a large shopping center. Take the upper road, St. James, which is the road on the left and continue to Barnett. The last block before Barnett is a one-way in the wrong direction so you have to turn left one block before Barnett, go to the end and turn right onto, go to the end, then left on Barnett. Go to Fairfield (pass a McDonald's and the Westgate Shopping Center on your left). Fairfield is marked, and on the far left-hand corner, you will see a sign for the ORR, partially obscured by sugar cane. Turn left here. At the first split, bear left (the ORR sign is hidden behind foliage), and then just keep following the signs. The last split is not signed. Just bear left. Cattle ticks are present here.
We spent the last night in Jamaica in Montego Bay, at one of the hotels on the "hip strip", aka Gloucestershire St. We didn't need reservations because it was Sunday night and the tour groups all leave on Sunday afternoon. On other nights, in high season, you might need reservations. We had a wonderful, Jamaica tourist brochure evening at Marguerites, a pricy but terrific restaurant right on the water. Umbrella drinks, sunsets, and great food. The Hip Strip is about 5 minutes from the airport. There are a couple of hotels right by the airport exit, too. I think the one Gail and Barry stayed in is one of these.
We didn't go to Rocklands because we ran out of time and because we had already found everything we were likely to see there. However, if we go back, we will visit there, if for no other reason than that they need the money to keep the place going. We will also go into the eastern part of the Blue and John Crow Mountains, partially to pick up the Black-billed Streamertail, to try to find Crested Quail Dove, and also to do some serious hiking. We would also like to visit Port Antonio, just for the relaxing touristy thing.
West Indian Whistling-Duck
Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
Greater Antillean Elaenia
Blue Mountain Vireo
Greater Antillean Bullfinch
Greater Antillean Grackle
The Ornithological Council