Jamaica

The third largest island in the Caribbean, Jamaica is a lush, mountainous nation of 2.5 million people. Jamaica is where Karen was born and raised, and where Rob and Karen met and got married. The island itself is nearly 150 miles long and 50 miles wide, with dramatic mountain ranges, windswept rocky shores, white sand beaches, and tropical rain forests.

Although it is best known for its pristine beaches and famous resorts, Jamaica is also the birthplace of reggae music, made famous by native son Bob Marley. Other popular West Indian music genres such as Soca, Marengue, Dancehall, and Calypso thrive in Jamaica, especially around Carnival time.

Jamaica boasts a culinary tradition as diverse as the people that make up its population. The island is famous for such dishes as jerk chicken, rice and peas, pepperpot soup, and many others. Be sure to check out the Jamaican recipes on the Jamaicans.com recipe page.

Jamaica is also a birder's paradise. The island is home to 28 endemic species and another 20 or so endemic sub-species. More endemic bird species occur in Jamaica than on any other Caribbean island or most other oceanic islands in the world. The island's diverse landscape encompasses a variety of habitats and elevations, making birding both a challenge and a rewarding way to see the island. If you're planning on birding Jamaica, be sure to get your hands on a copy of James Bond's essential "Birds of the West Indies." A newer guide that features Jamaica-specific bird finding tips and excellent photographs of all of the island's endemics is "Birds of Jamaica: A Photographic Field Guide," by Audrey Downer and Robert Sutton.



Jamaica Birding Trip Report
by Rob Batchelder

[Note: this trip report is now more than 10 years old and some of the information contained herein, particularly references to books and other reference materials, is now somewhat outdated.]

In December 2000, my wife Karen and I spent ten days in Jamaica visiting family and friends for the holidays. Although birding was not the primary focus of our trip to Jamaica, we did manage to squeeze in a good deal of birding during our stay, including a three-day road trip to several prime birding spots around the island. All told, we saw 73 species, including 19 of the 28 species endemic to Jamaica.

In preparation for the trip, I gleaned a lot of useful information from previous trip reports by Ellen Paul (December 1999) and Gruff Dodd (September 2000), both of which are available on Blake Maybank's on-line trip report repository. Because both reports are quite detailed, and provide a lot of information on general conditions in Jamaica (crime, road conditions, accommodations, prices, etc.), I won't go into great detail on such things in this report. I would, however, suggest that birders planning a trip to Jamaica have a look at the latest travel information and (if applicable) warnings on the U.S. State Department's web site.

Just to add my two cents' worth on a couple issues raised by Ellen Paul and Gruff Dodd: Crime is a problem in Jamaica, and violent crime has increased recently, but for the most part, it is restricted to large urban areas like Kingston and Montego Bay, and tends not to be directed at visitors. In the two years I lived in Kingston ('94-'96), and on two visits to the island since, I have never had any problems with crime. As far as driving in Jamaica, everything you've read is true. Driving is truly an adventure, and roads (especially off the beaten path) are often in bad repair. Jamaican drivers are aggressive, traffic moves on the left, and signs (where they exist) are often confusing. Once you get used to these conditions, however, driving in Jamaica is not as daunting as it first seems.

If you're planning a birding trip to Jamaica, be sure to get a copy of "Birds of Jamaica: A Photographic Field Guide" by Audrey Downer and Robert Sutton. This is the most up-to-date, and only Jamaica-specific, field guide to the island's bird life. It contains species accounts for all birds that regularly occur in Jamaica, as well as photographs of each of the island's endemic species and most endemic subspecies. A companion 2-CD set of bird sound recordings is also available from Cornell University Press. The Downer & Sutton book is essential, but does not contain illustrations or photographs of species that are not Jamaican specialties. Birders visiting Jamaica should therefore also bring along a more comprehensively-illustrated guide such as the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and/or "A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies" by Raffaele, et. al. The old standard for the region, James Bond's "Birds of the West Indies" is also useful, but some of Bond's species descriptions and taxonomy are rather out of date.

We arrived in Kingston on December 21. The Kingston airport is on a narrow peninsula that forms the boundary between Kingston Harbor and the Caribbean Sea. Along the road from the airport into the city, we saw Brown Pelican, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Turkey Vulture (known as "John Crow" in Jamaica), American Kestrel, and Royal Tern.

For the first few days of the trip, our birding was largely confined to my mother-in-law's backyard in Kingston. Fortunately, she lives on a lush, 2½-acre lot that is a haven for neotropical migrants as well as several Jamaican endemics. During our stay, we tallied 34 species in the yard, including Zenaida Dove, White-crowned Pigeon, Common Ground Dove, Olive-throated Parakeet, Smooth-billed Ani, Antillean Palm-Swift, Red-billed Streamertail (Jamaica's national bird, known locally as the "Doctor Bird"), Vervain Hummingbird, Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Woodpecker, Loggerhead Kingbird, Northern Parula, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Bananaquit, Jamaican Euphonia, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Black-faced Grassquit, Saffron Finch, Greater Antillean Grackle, and Jamaican Oriole.

From Kingston, we did a day trip up to Hardwar Gap and Hollywell National Park, located above Newcastle in the Blue Mountains. We took a short hike from the parking area in Hollywell Park down a dirt road that leads to a small waterfall on the north slope of the mountain ridge. The weather was mostly overcast, with intermittent periods of sun, light rain, and drizzle -- not the best birding weather. Nevertheless, we had good looks at a very cooperative Jamaican Tody. Other highlights included Jamaican Woodpecker, Rufous-throated Solitaire, White-eyed Thrush, White-chinned Thrush, Arrow-headed Warbler, Jamaican Stripe-headed Tanager, Jamaican Euphonia, Orangequit, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Jamaican Blackbird, and Jamaican Oriole. Local specialties that we missed, but which are reputed to be common in the Blue Mountains, were Ring-tailed Pigeon, Crested Quail-Dove (we later saw one at Marshall's Pen), Jamaican Elaenia, Greater Antillean Elaenia, Jamaican Pewee, Jamaican Vireo, and Blue Mountain Vireo.

Following our hike, we stopped for lunch at the Gap Café, located just down the hill from the park entrance on the road back to Kingston. I first visited the Gap Café in 1994 and found the view to be just as spectacular this time. There are hummingbird feeders on the terrace that attract Red-billed Streamertails, but the real attraction of the Gap Café is the setting, not the birds. If you stop for a meal here, be sure to indulge in a piece of their famous carrot cake.

On Boxing Day (December 26), Karen and I rented a Suzuki Samurai jeep from Island Car Rentals (1-800-892-4581) in Kingston, and hit the road for three days of more intensive birding. Our first stop was Ocho Rios on the north coast, where we spent the night with some old friends. Along the way from Kingston to Ocho Rios (via the "junction" route through Stony Hill and Port Maria), we had Magnificent Frigatebird, Little Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Turkey Vulture, A. Kestrel, and a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a telephone wire along the rocky coastline at Port Maria.

From Ocho Rios, we drove to Windsor Great House in the Cockpit Country of Trelawny. We took the main coastal route (A1) to Duncans, then drove inland through Clark's Town and Duanvale. Road conditions getting to and from Windsor were by far the worst we encountered on our trip. While four-wheel drive is not necessary, a high-clearance vehicle is. I would therefore not recommend this route in a small car with low ground clearance.

The 200-year old Windsor Great House has been owned by Englishman Michael Schwartz for nearly 15 years. He and biologist Susan Koenig, who was away during our visit, operate a biological research station on the grounds of the former plantation, and occasionally play host to visiting students and scientists conducting research on the unique flora and fauna of the area. Windsor Great House is not really geared toward tourism, and accommodations on the property are very basic (bring your own towel and toilet paper). Mike took us on a hike up to the Windsor Caves, a series of interconnected limestone caverns that extend for several kilometers under the unique hillock formations of the Cockpit Country. After hiking through the impressive caverns, we resurfaced just before dark and climbed up to another cavern entrance to watch the nightly exodus of 15,000+ bats. Between the non-stop rush of bats (some of which were quite large!) and the twinkling of dozens of fireflies (called "peenie wallies" and "blinkies" in Jamaica), this was a truly unique experience.

The birding at Windsor was also rewarding. Within a half-mile radius of the house, we spotted Cattle Egret, Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel, White-crowned Pigeon, Zenaida Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Olive-throated Parakeet, Black-billed Parrot (the main reason to visit Windsor), Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Red-billed Streamertail, Vervain Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Woodpecker, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, White-chinned Thrush, Jamaican Crow, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Louisiana Waterthrush, Bananaquit, Jamaican Euphonia, Greater Antillean Grackle, and Jamaican Oriole. Mike said he regularly hears Jamaican Owl and Northern Potoo calling at night, but neither species cooperated the night we were at Windsor.

Accommodations at Windsor were US$30, plus US$15 per person (not including drinks) for a delicious three-course dinner prepared by Mike's Rastafarian assistant, "Sugarbelly." Mike and Susan also host "Meet the Biologists" dinners that include dinner and a discussion of ongoing research projects with visiting biologists. The charge for these events is US$25. For more information, see Mike's web site at: http://www.cockpitcountry.com

From Windsor, we drove west through Bunker's Hill, Wakefield, and Adelphi, to Montego Bay. Along the way, we had Least Grebe, Little Blue Heron, Common Moorhen, several Dove/Pigeon species, Ovenbird, and Black-necked Stilt. The "road" from Windsor to Bunker's Hill is little more than a muddy track through cane fields and cow pastures. Grass growing in the middle of the tracks was often as high as our front bumper, and a few puddles and mud holes were pretty treacherous due to recent heavy rains, but we made it through without having to put our jeep into four-wheel drive.

After filling up our gas tank in Montego Bay we took the B8 south to Shettlewood, then the B7 all the way to Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth, en route to the Black River morass. This was beautiful country, and more direct as the crow flies, but one could also take the B8 all the way from Montego Bay to Ferris Cross, Westmoreland, then the A2 southeast along the coast to Black River. The scenery along this route (which I have driven in the past) is equally impressive, and the roads are better than the B7. Note that we did not stop at Rocklands Feeding Station in Anchovy, which is a popular destination for birders. Karen and I visited Rocklands in December 1997, but didn't feel the need to stop here again since we had already seen most of the birds one can expect to find there, and the fees charged by the resident guide are a bit on the steep side (see Gruff Dodd's September 2000 trip report).

We arrived in Black River in the early afternoon and headed south along the coast a couple miles to the Parottee Ponds. This is one of the best places in Jamaica for viewing waterbirds, and we were quite satisfied with the variety of birds present on the salt ponds and the surrounding area. These included Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Black-necked Stilt, Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, Laughing Gull, Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern, Common Ground-Dove, Caribbean Dove, and Saffron Finch. We did not see West Indian Whistling Duck, Caribbean Coot, Northern Jacana, or Purple Gallinule, but these species are, at least in theory, fairly common in the Black River morass.

After a long day of driving, we finally arrived at Marshall's Pen around 4:00 p.m. Marshall's Pen is a 300-acre cattle farm and bird sanctuary owned by Ann and Robert Sutton, the foremost ornithologists in Jamaica. Set in the cool, rolling hills just outside Mandeville, Marshall's Pen is a birder's paradise, and a mandatory stop for anyone trying to see all of Jamaica's endemic species. The Suttons have a guesthouse that sleeps up to a dozen people. Each room has its own bathroom (with hot shower -- quite a luxury after Windsor). Visitors share a common living room and well-equipped kitchen. Meals are not provided, but there are restaurants and supermarkets in nearby Mandeville. The Suttons charge US$35 per person for accommodations. When we arrived, Robert was showing two other American birders around his garden. I was encouraged to see these other birders, since Jamaica is not yet a well-known international birding destination.

While at Marshall's Pen, we saw more than 40 species, including 14 endemics. Had we spent another night, or even a few more hours, I'm confident we could have picked up several more. Highlights included Least Grebe, Caribbean Dove, Crested Quail-Dove (yes, Ellen, they do exist!), Olive-throated Parakeet, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Northern Potoo, Antillean Palm-Swift, Red-billed Streamertail, Vervain Hummingbird, Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Woodpecker, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Jamaican Becard, Cave Swallow, White-chinned Thrush, Jamaican Crow, a half-dozen warbler species, Bananaquit, Jamaican Stripe-headed Tanager, Jamaican Euphonia, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Orangequit, Greater Antillean Grackle, and Jamaican Oriole.

Despite Robert's best efforts with the spotlight and tape, we missed the Jamaican Owl that resides in an enormous tree next to the Sutton's house. We also missed the endemicYellow-shouldered Grassquit and several other Marshall's Pen "regulars." We heard a Jamaican Vireo calling just before we left, but missed seeing it. We weren't terribly distressed, however, as we decided we will definitely return to Marshall's Pen next time we are in Jamaica.

Trip List:

Least Grebe
Brown Pelican
Magnificent Frigatebird
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Common Moorhen
Black-necked Stilt
Semipalmated Plover
Greater Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Willet
Laughing Gull
Sandwich Tern
Royal Tern
Rock Dove
White-crowned Pigeon
Zenaida Dove
White-winged Dove
Common Ground-Dove
Caribbean Dove
Crested Quail-Dove*
Olive-throated Parakeet
Black-billed Parrot*
Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo*
Smooth-billed Ani
Northern Potoo
White-collared Swift
Antillean Palm-Swift
Jamaican Mango*
Streamertail*
Vervain Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Jamaican Tody*
Jamaican Woodpecker*
Sad Flycatcher*
Rufous-tailed Flycatcher*
Loggerhead Kingbird
Jamaican Becard*
Cave Swallow
Northern Mockingbird
Rufous-throated Solitaire
White-eyed Thrush*
White-chinned Thrush*
Jamaican Crow*
European Starling
Northern Parula
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Palm Warbler
Arrow-headed Warbler*
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Louisiana Waterthrush
Bananaquit
Jamaican Stripe-headed Tanager*
Jamaican Euphonia*
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Black-faced Grassquit
Orangequit*
Greater Antillean Bullfinch
Saffron Finch
Jamaican Blackbird*
Greater Antillean Grackle
Jamaican Oriole*

* = endemic to Jamaica