by Stephen Greenfield
I'm not going to write a true "trip report," as good descriptions have been made available by Marcia & Ron Braun (BirdChat 1996), George Dremeaux (ABA Sales, 1997), Mark Oberle (ABA Sales, 1993), and Gail Mackiernan (BirdChat 1995), but will just summarize and update some logistic information. Being an island, Jamaica has fewer species than an equal area on the mainland, but there is much of interest, and it has more endemic species than Hispaniola or Cuba, which are 7 and 10 times the size. Thanks to Michael Schwartz, who has lived in Jamaica for many years, for corrections and additions.
If you're not averse to rustic surroundings, for most of the best birding areas it's possible to stay right in good habitat, which avoids the hassle of pre-dawn driving (and also helps support worthwhile endeavors). In each place, the lodgings I stayed in cost about the same, US$25-30 (or J1000) for one person. The only exception was the Orange River Lodge, south of Montego Bay; it was a lovely place and had a lot of birds around, but was much more expensive than my guide book indicated ($72 for one person).
Roads in Jamaica are narrow, winding, potholed, and used by pedestrians and livestock: you cannot average more than 30 MPH. Road signs are not prevalent and it is easy to get lost. I used the Esso map, which is cheap (J15), detailed (even showing all of the houses and hotels I stayed in!) and pretty accurate. The others are not reliable. I'll try to give directions, but you must get an Esso map and you should ask for confirmation. (For simplicity, I will refer to the numbering of the main roads as shwon on the maps, such as A2 and B6, but those are rarely indicated on signs.)
I rented a car from Budget (952-3838) for about $50 a day; it was a Mitsubishi "Buzz" and had an engine we might put on a weed-whacker. I had to turn off the air-conditioning going uphill and even then it could not exceed 35 MPH; but on the twisting mountain roads that was usually as fast as one could safely go anyway.
There are ATMs using the Cirrus system at branches of the NCB (National Commercial Bank), even in towns as small as Port Antonio; but most places take US currency.
Telephone use the same country code as the US (1), and an area code of 876 (just changed from 809). Within Jamaica it was often problematic to make calls and get good connections
Though I suspected it was a tourist trap and only visited briefly before my return flight, the Rocklands "feeding station" really does have good birds, and the guide, Fritz, knows his birds and has phenomenal eyesight, for example picking out a Jamaican Elaenia (and distinguishing it immediately from Great Antillean) across a field. I had my best look at Arrow-headed Warbler there, and my only Caribbean Doves; the becard and Yellow-shouldered Grassquit are there in season. (However, Fritz and some reports have mentioned Jamaican Blackbird; this seemed to me--and to Robert Sutton--as highly unlikely, and more likely the recently-arrived Shiny Cowbird. They will charge you for the guided walk (and for the hummingbird show at the feeders, which I missed), which some people have complained about; but the preservation of their 20 acres of woods must depend on, among other things, getting some income from it.
To get to Rocklands, head south of town on the A1 (you may want to skirt downtown on the Howard Cooke Blvd., turn left after it ends, and then continue south after you rejoin the A1. At Reading, there are many signs pointing up the steep road inland. Do not continue straight into Reading Heights, but follow the main road to the right; after a small town there is a sign for the feeding station; further on, when the road becomes truly terrible, there are a couple of small signs with a hand-lettered "Birds."
Busha's Guest House (952-2009) is close to Rocklands and inexpensive (J1000); I stopped in to inquire but didn't end up staying there. From the town, take the right turn towards Lethe where there is a sign for Mountain Valley rafting tours. It is about one mile.
As noted, I stayed at the Orange River Lodge (979-3294), as some other birders have. From the A1 road, turn east at Fairfield Road, the first traffic light south of the Wingate shopping center (or, coming from Montego Bay, take the Howard Cooke Blvd. west of downtown and turn left at West Green, the 3rd roundabout to get back to and cross the A1). At a Y-intersection, stay left and do not go uphill; proceed through Tucker towards John's Hall. There will be a sign (about 4 miles from the A1) indicating a left turn to ORL.
HARDWAR GAP, BLUE MOUNTAINS.
The Green Hills Guest House (997-4087) is about a mile north of the "gap" (the crest), so it's easy to walk to the gap and Hollywell National Park. It has simple rooms and a shared bath. If Lloyd Henry the housekeeper doesn't answer, check at the big pink house a short way further north, where his mother lives. Apparently Lloyd will cook if you bring supplies. Otherwise, you can eat at the Gap Cafe (between 11 and 5?), a lovely but expensive restaurant just south of the park.
The area is good for several endemics, though the only bird I saw nowhere else was the Jamaican Blackbird, which is endangered and distinctive in behavior if not appearance. I was also surprised to find a Swainson's Warbler there.
The road from both coasts is steep and winding. From the north, the road starts at Buff Bay; from the south, follow the Old Hope road east of Kingston, and at the end head up the mountains on the road to Newcastle (not the road to Jack's Hill). Allow a couple of hours.
WINDSOR CAVE, COCKPIT COUNTRY
The Windsor Great House (997-3832; email@example.com) is owned by Michael Schwartz, a British expatriate engineer, and managed by a Jamaican named Sugar Belly. Schwartz has mostly rented his rooms to scientists doing research in the area and has mixed feelings about expanding to tourists. The facilities will only attract intrepid visitors: the two rooms are very basic (wooden slats on the windows, and only one has electric lighting), and no running water (there is a latrine and you can wash in the river or from a hose from a water tank). Sugar or Rose will also prepare meals for a modest charge. Though things were quiet like they were everywhere in November, I had my best birding luck there, with both Amazons easy to find each day, two pair of the striking Crested Quail-Dove, both cuckoos, and a solitaire (which most people only report from the Blue Mts.). A potoo was on the fence most of the evenings and many others were calling.
I followed Mark Oberle's directions to get there. In the town of Falmouth a small, low sign shows the route to Good Hope plantation. At the fork bear left to a stop sign and turn left; after crossing the river, turn right at the immediate T (about 2 miles from Falmouth), passing the river-rafting base. At Sherwood Content, turn right at the T in front of Mac's market (about mile 8). Soon there is a sign for the caves, where you fork left.
At the T at the cave (about 4 more miles), there is small shack owned by Franklin, who is a guide for the caves. The driveway to the house is a sharp left. IF YOU ARE GOING TO GO TO WINDSOR HOUSE, PLEASE SEND ME E-MAIL OR CALL ME AT 1-612/825-6202.
I was convinced it was unwise, alone and in an under-powered car, to try the Burnt Hill road through the Cockpits past Barbecue Bottom. It sounds like a fascinating area, and supposedly the best place for Black-billed Amazon, Blue Mt. Vireo, and maybe even Golden Swallow. I was shown the northern end of the road (it is actually just a track) at Kinloss where the road takes a sharp bend between Clark's Town and Duanvale.
Michael Schwartz adds, "If you take the above-mentioned track, don't get lost! You end up after a mile or so in a clearing called Campbell's (recognisable by remains of an old factory, broken-down truck etc.) where the road divides into three. The least-used track, barely visible in the middle, is the one you want. To the left, you go back round to Clark's Town, and to the right you follow a logging trail which gets worse and worse. The correct road is well-surfaced with marl and ballast, although somewhat uneven (not for low ground-clearance vehicles like the Buzz, but a normal 2WD vehicle would be OK)." Ann Sutton had recently driven the road in a sedan car.
At Marshall's Pen, the Suttons usually rent rooms in the guest house (963-8569); they are clean, with private showers. A lot of good habitat is preserved on their ranch; however, the paths were quite muddy and mosquito-ridden. There are many J. Owl territiories on the property; in November they were not singing, and only one responded to a tape, and then only briefly. Robert Sutton, Jamaica's foremost ornithologist, did take me out to try for the owl, but otherwise was busy and you should not assume he will act as guide.
The Esso map shows the "Marshall's Pen Great House and Bird Sanctuary," but is slightly inaccurate about the local roads. From the Winston Jones Highway, go west at a bus shelter topped with a sign about "a project of the Miketown Community Association;" take a right at the immediate T-intersection, and then the unmarked stone gateway is about 1/2 mile up the road on the right.
While staying at Marshall's Pen, I went to Elim Pools in the Black River Morass (marsh), which had Caribbean Coots and hundreds of egrets and herons, and which is supposed to be the best place for West Indian Whistling-Duck (at dusk). From the A2 turn north at Wilton to Braes River, bearing left at the fork (about 1 mile). Follow the signs for the Elim Agricultural school. Turn west, past Elim (about 3 more miles) through extensive cane fields (about 4 more miles). Just before you cross a small bridge leading to Newton, turn south on a dirt road. When a pump station comes into view, turn left again on sort of a dike that parallels the river, with extensive marshes to the left. The road ends shortly.
November is apparently the worst month for bird song and it was very difficult to find some species, but I eventually did see all but a couple of the endemics. I heard four owls call, but each only briefly and I couldn't find them. In several special trips, I failed to find Bahama Mockingbird at Portland (down a miserable road), whistling-ducks at Elim Pools, or tropicbirds at the cliffs near Hector's River in the far east (I got there at 7:30 and there were lots of Turkey Vultures cruising the cliffs, which are near the school north of town - perhaps you have to be there at dawn?)
Mosquitoes were annoying, mostly just at dusk. Some reports said there were no chiggers, but I got a lot of some kind of bite that itched for a week! Michael Schwartz wrote that "ticks and especially grass-lice (which I'm told are the baby ticks), are very prevalent in spring: the lice congregate in thousands on long grass and transfer to you when you brush the grass.... RID is the cure and is readily available from pharmacies."
In towns of any size, people are constantly trying to sell you various goods and services. Way off in the country, people were very pleasant. Though I was warned it was a bad idea, I gave rides to a lot of people and enjoyed their company.
As already noted, given the lack of signs, you will need to periodically confirm which road you are on. The following may seem pedantic, but several reports gave the bad advice to ask "Is this the road to X?" It is far more dependable to ask "WHICH is the road to X" or, even better, "to what town does this road go?"
Michael Schwartz also writes:
The single best advice I could give a visitor is that you should say, "Good morning/afternoon/evening" when you meet anyone. An American "Hi" is not OK!-too casual ! And when they have replied, "Good morning", then you ask whatever...! Also, remember that, in the country, people's houses are small, often just a sleeping room, so they "live" in the road. You, as motorist, have to share the road with pedestrians: they will not necessarily think you have priority."
Feel free to write or call if you have questions. Again, if you plan to go to Windsor, please contact me.