by Keith Taylor
Gazing at our atlas during cold winter nights we would dream of classic journeys to tropical countries with immaculate sandy beaches lapped by deep-blue waters and fringed by waving coconut palMs. To escape the brutal Canadian winter we would pore through our field guides dreaming of the hundreds of species we had yet to see at these quintessential destinations. We had only been thinking of a winter getaway until an ad in the local newspaper caught our eye, a fantastically inexpensive Jamaican charter with "Sun Tours", a deal we couldn't refuse. Although the Caribbean would not yield the prolific bird lists of other sun holidays, we were filling out the bird families of the world and knew we would eventually need to visit these islands to observe the endemic todies and Palmchat. A winter trip would maximize our chances of seeing approximately thirty migratory eastern North American species as well as the residents. So we decided to go to this island paradise where the people are friendly, speak English, and the birds are stunning and diverse. An enchanting sun-drenched land that embraces twenty-seven endemics, more than on any other Caribbean island or most other oceanic islands around the world.
As all of Jamaica's endemics can be easily located during a one-week stay, two weeks would allow plenty of time to pursue my non-birding wife's interests and spend alternate days as ordinary tourists. Although the cost of the charter paid for two-weeks of accommodation at the Comfort Inn, we paid extra to stay at Marshall's Pen for two nights. The purpose of this stay was mainly to see the nocturnal species but also for the ease of observing many endemics from our doorstep. Paying extra over the cost of the charter was still much less expensive than booking separate accommodations.
Jamaica's avifauna is composed of 200 species and 50-plus vagrants or rare winter visitors. Fifty of these are Greater Anti I lean specialties that can be found throughout this beautiful island that is blessed with a wide range of habitats from dry coastal scrub to mountain rainforests that loom 7,000 feet into endless blue skies. Jamaica's birding sites are easily accessed along paved roads from excellent accommodations. The five sites you must bird to see all of Jamaica's endemics include the Cockpit Country (Windsor Cave), Marshall's Pen, Rockland's Feeding Station, the Blue Mountains (Hardware Gap) and Mockingbird Hill for Black-billed Streamertail.
Bird books such, as "Birds of Jamaica" are widely available throughout Jamaica and less expensive than at home. There is not as yet a birdfinding guide to Jamaica, although Mrs. Sutton has one in preparation. We used the several trip reports available on the net at http://www3.ns.sympatico.ca/ns/maybank/Trips.htm . During winter, Jamaica's climate is pleasant, the humidity is low, it seldom rains, and temperatures range between 700 in the mountains to 850 on the coast. There are few biting insects.
Montego Bay's sky was aflame as wisps of brilliantly-hued clouds captured the colours of the setting sun. Stepping from our plane we were instantly surrounded by wonderful frangi?pani scented breezes. After clearing customs we rendezvouzed with our hotel shuttle for the two-hour drive to Ocho Rios. The driver of the air-conditioned van ignored all speed limits as he hurtled along the narrow winding highway. White-knuckled, we roared through villages narrowly missing the toes of pedestrians. As this driving custom was routine, the Jamaicans took the near misses in stride. Safely reaching our destination the headlights revealed elaborate Fan Palms and fragrant pink blooms of hibiscus framing the gated entrance.
The Comfort Inn was an evocative and romantic place with its own special atmosphere and charm. A luxurious collection of three-story villas decorated with elegant white stucco encircled a large swimming pool and an aesthetic bamboo-constructed restaurant and bar. It was late in the evening when we signed the office register. Receiving the key from the hospitable receptionist and comatose from our long day, we went directly to bed.
Anxious, I was awake at first light. With tantalizing exotic calls emanating from the thick tangles, I forged outdoors to explore the small plot of rainforest surrounding the hotel grounds. A melodious “you cheat, you cheat, sometimes cheat you" announced the presence of my first endemic, a Jamaican Oriole, while a rapidly repeated chur?chur-chur-chur-chur like a motor being started disclosed the second, a Jamaican Euphonia. Feeding on the nectar of the ~ garden's striking flowers were minute Vervain Hummingbirds, Red-billed Streamertails, and the black-throated Jamaican race of Bananaquit. Overhead flocks of white-rumped Antillean Palm Swifts flew bat-like, gliding, wheeling, diving and twisting from side to side.
My wife awakened to the pleasant aroma of Blue Mountain Coffee and the serenade of tropical birds. Together we consumed a hearty breakfast at our hotels open-air restaurant, a peaceful setting under casuarinas and palm trees where we ate most of our meals. The staff was friendly and the meals light and delicious.
One of the less-expensive means of renting an automobile at a foreign destination is to prepay through Holiday House. We had arranged the rental of a compact Suzuki Alto. After devouring scrambled eggs and drinking several cups of the most full-flavoured and mellow coffee to be found, we walked through Ocho Rios along narrow streets lined with old frame houses of Georgian architecture to their Jamaican agent, Island Car Rentals. The tiny unpretentious office was typical of any undeveloped country and dispite my unwarrented anxieties over the paperwork, everything went well. Actually we were in for a pleasant surprise. . rebate!
The air-conditioning purring, we struck out along the velvet-green coast towards Port Antonio and the aesthetic Mockingbird Hill Restaurant. We had come to this enchanting old Jamaican country hotel specifically to see the Black-billed Streamertail, a hummingbird that had just been split into a separate species from the widespread Red-billed Streamertail or "Doctorbird". As we sat on the patio relishing our gourmet lunch, emerald Black-billed Streamertails and iridescent purple Jamaican Mangos fed in the flowering trees above our heads. It was a pleasant surprise to find two more endemics frequenting the gardens surrounding the inn, the local Ring-tailed Pigeon and widespread Jamaican Woodpecker.
The drive along the north coast from Port Antonio to Morant Bay is one of the most lush and scenic in Jamaica. Inspiring views materialized around every comer. We drove past sorbet-coloured homes with enclosed front porches and wooden jalousies, their yards filled with jungle-like trees. The predominantly rocky coastline was punctuated here and there with gleaming-white beaches shaded by magnificent swaying palMs. Moored wooden fishing boats among inlets and tidal backwaters were painted brilliant crayon yellows and reds. Overhead, menacing Magnificent Frigatebirds drifted slowly on warm trade winds awaiting the opportunity to rob Laughing Gulls of their hard-earned meals. Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Cattle Egrets, Zenaida Doves, Loggerhead Kingbirds, Northern Mockingbirds, and Greater Antillean Grackles were common companions on the roadside. At the village of Hector's River we visited the cliffs where White-tailed Tropicbirds nest. The acrobatic maneuvering and high-speed chases of these ribbon-tailed birds' courtship flights were indeed memorable.
It wasn't long before my driving speeds matched those of the Islanders and late in the afternoon we returned to our air-conditioned rooms dodging the potholes so predictable in Third World countries. The condo-like dwelling was one of the most delightful that we had ever encountered with Spanish-tile floors, spacious living room, self-contained kitchenette, and French doors that opened onto a small balcony. We could have easily made the tastefully furnished rooms with their plump upholstered sofas our permanent residence.
As twilight approached the first bats emerged to flit about overhead snapping up insects. Surrounded in tropical splendour, we dined on the lantern-lit terrace contented with a menu of spicy conch chowder, Blue Crab, wine, and a fabulous slice of homemade Key lime pie. The Caribbean ambience experienced in Jamaica was to be enhanced this night by the energetic yet soothing rhythyms of the Reggae beat provided by a local band.
The horizon was painted the colour of honey when the aroma of
bacon and fresh brewed coffee tantalized our senses. Breakfast
as always was impeccable and our steward kept the perfectly brewed
flowing. After devouring plates of scrambled eggs, bacon, and
papaya we headed off for a tour of the nearby Prospect
From the tractor-pulled open jitney we were shown working examples of
crops such as cassava, banana, coffee, and sugar cane. Here we
coconut milk fresh from the tree and slivers of exotic native fruits.
After the tour we stopped briefly to admire the charming manor "Goldeneye", once the home of Ian Flemming who wrote the famous 007 spy novels and now preserved as a historical site. James Bond, the author of 'Birds of the West Indies" was chosen by Ian to be the main character's name of these best sellers.
Returning to our hotel we paused at an alluring out-of-the-way art gallery under an umbrella of spreading Banyon trees: Harmony Hall, a turreted 19th century estate house built of cut-stone restored with tray ceilings and embellished with gingerbread fretwork. Peering through the diamond paned windows, rooms exhibiting the works of local artists delighted the eye. Once inside, the attic was crammed with superb traditional handicrafts; woodworking, candlemaking, embroidery and pottery. After purchasing a souvenir jewelery box made from local hardwood we sat in the shaded garden cafe' where we sipped chilled nectarine beverages to ward off the heat of midday. Here we were introduced to a Jamaican specialty½erk-a spicy mix of salt and ground bonnet chili peppers. Bonnets are the hottest of chilis and the jerk chicken held both fire and flavour.
During the cooler hours after sunset we made a visit to Ocho Rios' premier gourmet restaurant-Evita's a charming 1860's house ornamented with delicately carved louvres, arbours, and an attractive wooden interior with stained-wood floors. Dining on the vine-hung veranda, romantic silver moonlight danced on the placid sea below as we conversed over sparkling wine and our Caribbean-Italian combination plates of Pasta Escovicha and Lasagna Rastafari
Cauliflower-clouds drifted across the early morning sky as we left the Comfort Inn for a two-night stay at the wonderful estate of Marshall's Pen. En route we stopped briefly at the Hope Botanical Gardens in Kingston, at the Caymanas Dyke Ponds near Spanish Town, and at the Portland Ridge area of Clarendon.
Kingston's narrow streets were lined with colourful tropical flowers, banana trees, and huge spreading figs that sired sun-dappled shadows across white colonial homes adorned with vivid-coloured shutters and baluster-supported porticos. The ponds at the Hope Botanical Gardens held a few Masked Ducks and the nearby scrub harboured a few introduced Saffron Finches. The Ferry River has been dammed east of Spanish Town, which has created the large Caymanas Dyke Ponds. Among the reedy edges and rushes of these wetlands we observed Glossy Ibis, Common Moorhen, Purple Gallinule, Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons, Least Bittern, Northern Jacana, and the introduced Yellow-crowned Bishop perched upon drowned trees. "Caribbean" Coots have been downgraded from having full-species status to being merely a localized variant of the American Coot; both are resident at Caymanas where they interbreed. Our next stop was the hot, very arid limestone forest of the Portland Ridge. Patches of tall cactus, thorn scrub, and thatch palms are typical of this habitat. Stolid Flycatchers and Bahama Mockingbirds were common and we were fortunate to find the rare Plain Pigeon in the dry palm scrub.
Late in the day we drove through the stone-pillar gates of Marshall's Pen, a working cattle ranch and nature reserve owned by Robert Sutton, author of Birds of Jamaica: A Photographic Field Guide. Soon after our arrival, Robert pointed out the reliable roosting site of a Northern (Jamaica) Potoo that has recently been split from Common Potoo and distinguished from that species via its habit of holding the beak horizontally instead of vertically. Later that evening we searched the surrounding paddocks looking for a resident pair of Jamaican Owls with the use of Robert's recording on Voices of the New World Owls. Warned previously about the nasty, tiny ticks which inhabit the grassy pastures, I tucked my trousers into my socks and sprayed the area liberally with insect repellent before entering. The tape was answered by a rather hoarse, throaty un-owl-like whow from high in an isolated Red Birch, a massive tree that seemed to support the sky like an ornamental pillar. The beam of our flashlights searched amongst the thick bromeliads on the huge limbs and eventually fell upon the shine of two large hazel orbs. Gratified with the sighting of these small tawny owls, I picked up the tape recorder that I had placed on the ground not knowing it was now crawling with ticks!
The Sutton estate is a delightful old Jamaican country home complete with elaborate trim and aesthetic plank floors. From our rooms, filled with quaint antiques, we gazed out across the flowered landscape to the distant hills, or sat comfortably on the balcony looking down into the surrounding treetops where native and migrant birds were easily ob?served. As we sipped cool drinks, a Jamaican Vireo sat motionless on its perch, occasionally explod?ing into action to pick insects off leaves. Nearby, a Sad Flycatcher acrobatically fly-catched from an exposed perch, periodically darting out after its prey.
While at Marshall's Pen we concentrated our birding efforts along one dirt road that has been cleared of tick-infested grasses. This was not a difficult task as twenty-four endemics are possible along this lengthy road. Characteristic of the mid-level limestone forests at Marshall's Pen are spindly, low canopy trees, thick growths of vines and straggler figs, and other dense foliage that obscures bright sunlight. A profusion of orchids and bromeliads cling to these trees in an endless struggle for nutrients. There were butterflies painted with every hue of the rainbow, some with wings ablaze with an intense irides?cence. In the extensive tracts of forest and in the gardens filled with flowering shrubs we observed White-winged and Caribbean Doves, Common Ground-Doves, Jamaican Parakeets (split from Olive-throated), Cave Swallows, Jamaican Todies, Jamaican Elaenias, Jamaican Pewee (recently split from Greater Antillean Pewee), Jamaican Becards, White-eyed and White-chinned Thrushes, Arrow-headed, Black-throated Blue and Black-and-white Warblers, Ovenbirds, Northern Parula, Yellow-shouldered and Yellow-faced Grassquits, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, and Orangequits. Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo and Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo were also common. These huge endemic cuckoos were truly impressive as they hopped slowly through the trees.
It was late in the day when I become aware of several itchy welts with miniscule black centres covering my body. Ticks! My wife spent the next hour gouging the non-infectious pests out with her thumbnail and applying anti-itch ointment.
During our stay at Marshall's Pen, we took short drives into Mandeville for midday and evening meals. We were particularly fond of an excellent Chinese restaurant and a fabulous local cafe serving jerk dishes. As the best birding was early in the mornings, we purchased a few groceries for snacks and to prepare breakfasts in our kitchenette.
After saying our goodbyes to the Suttons we drove off to the Upper Black River Morass, the largest, most interesting and varied of Jamaica's wetlands. In particular we had come to search for the very local West Indian Whistling-Duck. Although most active at dusk we found two of these rather inconspicuous "tree-ducks" hidden amongst the reeds at the end of a dike road that follows the Black River. Others enhancing the beauty of the marsh were Clapper Rail, Limpkin, Least Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Northern Jacana, the Caribbean race of American Coot, and many species of migratory ducks and shorebirds. We also spent some time at Great Pedro Pond looking for the secretive Yellow-breasted Crake which is more easily found during the spring nesting season.
Contented after a filling brunch in Mandeville we spent the day appreciating the country's many charms on our way back to Ocho Rios. Our relaxed drive took us high over the rugged Dry Harbour Mountains at the edge of Cockpit Country. The route was very scenic with rugged bluffs, beautiful forests, and quaint villages.
The following morning after an early breakfast at our hotel we headed west along the coastal highway towards Falmouth. Here we stood on a limestone bridge in the humid morning air awaiting a response to the playback of our tape recorder. Surrounding us were clumps of mature Red and Black Mangroves that impersonated solid islands; as sunlight penetrated their canopy it illuminated the splendid plumage of several White-crowned Pigeons. Soon, the slow, guttural gaw gaw gaw call of the Mangrove Cuckoo was followed by the sight of a cinnamon-buff breast glowing from among the dense stands. Twisting its head to grotesque angles while holding its body immobile, it then dropped abruptly to pursue some unseen prey in hops through the stilt-like aerial roots. Early morning was most productive in luring this secretive bird from cover and to experience the bites of the miniscule no-see-eMs. Nearby, Prairie Warblers flit amongst the hammocks of Jamaica Dogwood, Loblolly, Feathery Lysiloma and Mahogany. The Falmouth mangroves and pungent salt ponds also produced Great, Reddish and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, rnany migrant shorebirds, Black-necked Stilt, and the "Golden race" of Yellow Warbler. Rare, two gorgeous Greater Flamingos stood in dazzling sunlight along the edge of one pan. It is difficult to imagine the evolutionary process that led to such an exquisite creation!
Later that morning we boarded a raft for a peaceful two-hour trip down the Martha Brae River. Lazily, the poleman and crew drifted under cerulean skies, pulled by the torpid flow of the river. A bewildering variety of flora and fauna appeared at every twist and turn. Exploring each bend, we stopped to admire flocks of resplendent egrets drifting from the heavens like gossamer snowflakes and chattering groups of Smooth-billed Anis. The modest bamboo vessel certainly offered a compel?ling experience.
At noon the tempera?ture had become oppressive so we took time off to swim in the cool waters of our pool. After a light lunch we relaxed in the shade surrounding our rooMs. Sipping cold lemonades we absorbed the awe-inspiring views.
It was pre-dawn when I kissed my wife goodbye. I was off to visit the wet limestone forests of the Cockpit Country where three endemics, Black-billed and Yellow-billed Parrots and Jamaican Crow are found exclusively. The car's radio was tuned to Bob Marley as I negotiated the narrow paved road that leads to Windsor Cave. I parked the rental beside a small shop where it would be safe, watched by Mr. Taylor the rastafarian owner. We made jokes about being related before I started out on the series of tracks and trails that gives easy access to search for the Cockpit endemics. Entering the humid tropical forest, I gazed up into the crowns of huge trees reaching 80-115 feet in height. The constant moisture on this limestone plateau creates a tangled net of vines, bromeliads, and orchids upon the trees; lianas hung in loops and tangles from the canopy while a dense layer of shrubs covered the dark forest floor. Here at the lowest level the rich green tapestry, choked with creepers, was broken only by an occasional patch of gorgeous Mountain Pride. I was fortunate to notice the movement of a pair of Crested Quail-Doves as they crept in the shade of the forest understory and had an eye-to-eye encounter with several stunning Stripe-headed Tanagers. An antithesis of the dark interior, this fiery Spindalis eclipsed even the brightest of its Neotropical cousins. Three short hours later I returned to the hotel after having seen the endemics and the introduced Green-rumped Parrotlet, Ring-tailed and White-crowned Pigeons, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, and Jamaican and Blue Mountain Vireos. The Jamaican Crow, although a typical crow in appearance, made up for it's plain plumage by performing a hilarious collection of jabbering and gobbling vocalizations.
After a delicious breakfast we drove back through Montego Bay to visit Rockland's Feeding Station where Vervain Hummingbird, Jamaican Mango, Orangequit, Black-faced Grassquit, and the introduced Saffron Finch come to be nourished at the seed and hummingbird feeders. Here, the Red-billed Streamertail, a hummer with a ten-inch tail, actually perched on our fingers as it fed from a small glass bottle! In the ruinate woodland around Rockland's we observed Caribbean Dove, Ruddy Quail-Dove, and Stolid Flycatchers. The quail-doves were devilishly difficult to see, only the rustling of leave litter giving their positions away.
As shadows lengthened late in the evening we drove into the neighbouring hills to listen for Chuck-will's-widow. Scanning the multi-hued skies we saw the nightjars silhouetted against the darkening skies. The aerialist-feeders skimmed the forest canopy hawking for the insect banquet.
The air was calm as we celebrated our vacation that evening at
Bay's best restaurant, an elegant heritage house of white clapboard
Surrounded with splendour, we dined contented on a bon viveur menu of
roast pheasant and baby sweet potatoes and finished with a fabulous
of homemade mango pie. During the serene sunset hour we toasted
live's with glasses of blackberry wine. Tomorrow would be our
day in paradise.
At Hardware Gap, high in the Blue Mountains above Kingston, the noise of traffic had vanished, replaced by the exotic sounds of tropical birds and insects. The dawn chorus was unbelievable!. My plans to spend the whole day on this range had deteriorated. My wife was feeling ill and only part of the day was mine to spend alone in search of my last Jamaican endemic - the endangered Jamaican Blackbird. Although rare and found almost exclusively at this location, I had a good chance of locating this most difficult of Jamaica's endemics foraging silently for insects high among the lush growth of bromeliads. The rain of debris falling from above would attract my attention to its whereabouts.
The virgin montane forest was lush, dark, dense and cool with many large trees heavily overgrown with orchids, creepers and fungi. Long strands of grey lichen trailed from huge branches. Sitting under the foliage with its head inclined upwards searching the underside of leaves for insects, the tiny, comical Jamaican Tody added wonderful splashes of colour. The songs and calls of Ring-tailed Pigeons, Jamaican Becards, White-chinned and White-eyed Thrushes, Blue Mountain Vireos, Arrow-headed Warblers, and Orangequits filled the old-growth forest.
Above 5,000 feet, the stunted, gnarled and twisted elfin forest remained shrouded in mist throughout the day. This mist created a profusion of moss-clad and exquisite epiphyte~encrusted trees. Shy quail-doves crept on the cloud forest floor amongst the dense shrub layer and elegant tree ferns, whilst White-collared Swifts flew at tremendous speeds high above the forest canopy. Here, the nature trails at Holywell Forest Reserve gave access to many of Jamaica's endemics, and the haunting flute-like song of the local Rufous-throated Solitaire was heard echoing across the valley. The trail has a rather eerie atmosphere and you could be forgiven for believing that you had entered some enchanted forest of folklore.
At noon I left the Blue Mountain's dense forest with its cool inviting pools and waterfalls contented in having ticked all but one of Jamaica's endemics. Impeded with the limited time and very disappointed, the oriole-like Jamaican Blackbird was not found. The next day we expressed our sad goodbyes to the hotel staff before reluctantly leaving one of the most beautiful islands that eyes have ever seen!
Faced with the excessive task of observing several hundred species, one never feels relaxed, eager to achieve the longest possible list. This fretfulness however is mixed with highly-charged emotional gratification and certainly produces more "bang for the buck" (I have ticked as many as 600 species in a three-week trip which was certainly fun-filled as well as hard work). Although vowing never to visit a country that would produce so few species, the relaxed pace in Jamaica shaped the vacation into one of the most enjoyable that we have experienced. Here the anxieties so often felt with the need to succeed in observing as many species as possible were quelled. Easily located during a one-week stay, two weeks allowed plenty of time to assault all of our Jamaican lifers and left occasions to pursue other interests. We came home with a commendable list of 42 life birds.
Reservations of any Jamaican accommodation
1 -80O~432-7559. (Toll free within Canada, Best to reserve lodges at their own numbers.)
Strawberry Hill, US$135+ each, Irish Town. Tel: 011-809-944-8400.
Blue Mountain Inn , US$135+ each nightly, Gordon Town Rd. Tel:
Ivor's Guest House, US $95/double, US$85/single. Meals must be reserved. US$36 supper. Jack's Hill Rd. Tel 927-1460 or 977-0033
Gap Cafe' (must make reservations for supper). Tel: 997-3032.
Rockland's Feeding Station. Tel 952-2009. Phone Lisa Salmon, the owner, early in the day to let her know you're coming.
Marshall's Pen, US~301each per night Tel. 0l l-809-963~8569
Island Car Rental Ltd. $466 Cdn per week plus 15% taxes and US$12 daily insurance
Norman Manley Airport; Kingston, 1-809-92-8075;
Sangster Airport, Montego Bay, 1-809-952-7225 (open 9 am to 5 pm, 3 hours ahead of our time)
Get confirmation when making reservation.
Jamaica: Jewel of the Caribbean; "Winging It", Volume 4, Number 9, September 1992
Lonely Planet's Jamaica