Birdingpals Trip Report

Trip Report Jamaica – January 2006
by William Edmond

Bird Tour Report 4/5 January 2006 – Jamaica
St. Elizabeth and Westmoreland
Having decided to take a winter holiday with my wife Lynn and daughter Lauren to the beautiful island of Jamaica for two weeks, there had to be time set aside for a spot of birdwatching.
So having got in touch with Birdingpal Vaughan Turland a couple of months before going over, he kindly devised an itinerary which would allow me to try and see as many endemics, residents and winter visitors on the island as a two day trip would allow.
Vaughan is a keen naturalist and ornithologist. He is English and married to a Jamaican. He lives in Jamaica and has an excellent knowledge of Jamaican Natural history gathered over the last 30 years. Located on the South Coast of Jamaica, he has specialist knowledge of Birding locations in the parishes of St Elizabeth and Westmoreland. These range from isolated mountain areas to morass and coastal wetland.
He is currently working on a project to trace the steps of Victorian Naturalist Philip Henry Gosse who visited Bluefields from 1845-46 and who is famous for his works; A Naturalists Sojourn in Jamaica and Birds of Jamaica.
He has planned and led walking expeditions in a number of locations including the Arctic of Northern Norway, Canada, Malaysia, as well as the mountains of Scotland and throughout Europe.
Vaughan offers sound advice to fellow birders visiting Jamaica. He will also arrange birding tours through Reliable Adventures Jamaica, a Bluefields based community tour company which is licenced by the Jamaica Tourist Board.
The two day bird tour on the spectacularly beautiful south coast of Jamaica found 74 species including 16 endemics. We visited a good range of habitats from mountain to coastal plain, morass and sea shore. On the first day, after leaving the hotel on the North Coast we travelled along the scenic route from Reading near Montego Bay, over the winding and sometimes narrow mountain road that climbs over the island and down to Ferris Cross on the South Coast. The journey, just over an hour’s duration passes through extensive orange groves and thick mountain forest. The road with its many hairpin bends has literally been cut through the rocky mountain sides. Beautiful wild orchids and many species bromeliad (wild pine) can be seen clinging to the trees along the roadside. Many species of bird can often be observed taking a bath in the water that has collected on the bromeliads in the early mornings. Banana leaves are another favourite bathing point for Orangequits and other relatively small species.
Jamaica offers some of the best birding in the Caribbean. It has more endemics than any other island in the region. There are more than 270 species (including a large number of winter visitors, transients and vagrants that can be seen depending on the season). Of these there are approximately 125 species that breed here including endemic species, subspecies, residents and visitors. There are 18 endemic sub species and 3 Caribbean endemics (West Indian Whistling Duck, Caribbean Coot, Antillean Palm Swift)
The first birding stop of the tour was at Fonthill Pond in St Elizabeth. It was early afternoon and there were a good number of species readily evident: Least Grebe, Northern Jacana (including some in juvenile plumage), Blue-winged Teal, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret and Common Moorhen. The gracefully elegant Black-necked Stilts were seen feeding on a shallow area in the middle of the pond.
The next venue in the afternoon session was The Black River Safari. This is a 1 ½ hour boat tour on Jamaica’s legendary Black River with miles of morass and swamp-lands, reed and mangrove. The Luana, Nassua and Santa Cruz Mountains provide a wonderful back-drop to the tranquil scene. From the moment we arrived at the dockside, we were surrounded by birds – Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron. After leaving the dock, we visited a communal nesting colony of Snowy Egret and Cattle Egrets. There were several young in the nests providing an excellent eye-level photo-opportunity. Down in the Red Mangrove roots a Black-Crowned Night Heron was seen standing absolutely still, just waiting for the heat of the day to pass. As we moved further up stream, we were fortunate to find a few of the local crocodiles (Crocodilus Acutus) ready to oblige the cameras. An Osprey was seen perched in a tree top, but it was a little too distant to get a detailed view. A little later we saw a beautifully marked Green-backed Heron (locally known as the Crocodile Dentist) and some Little Blue Herons.
In winter, through migration, the number of species in Jamaica nearly doubles. These migrants can arrive in August and remain here until early May. For people from North America, it is often a good opportunity to see species that do not occur in their area of the USA. Whilst for people from Europe, the winter season is an ideal time to visit and to catch the mainly North American influx. Many of the species that come at this time add to Jamaica’s resident populations (example, herons and Glossy Ibis). In spring, they have a few species that migrate to breed here (Black-whiskered Vireo, Caribbean Martin, Antillean Nighthawk).
From The Black River we moved on eastwards to Crane Road Beach to see what birds were on the shoreline. Again, we were not disappointed. On the piles of a ruined pier there were a good number of Sandwich Terns and the larger Royal Tern. At the waterline there were a few Willets, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstones and Spotted Sandpipers. Overhead, a flotilla of Magnificent Frigatebirds (a mix of males, females and immature birds) cruised menacingly on the stiff afternoon breeze.
After twenty minutes or so of fruitless waiting and hoping to find a Belted Kingfisher we moved on eastwards for around three miles towards the fishing village of Parattee. The road in this area has water on both sides. To the south it is the sea and to the north a large expanse of morass, mudflats and mangrove forest. The water here is extremely saline, but nevertheless strongly favoured by winter migrants and residents alike. Almost immediately, we were treated to the sight of three Ospreys close by wheeling and diving with great agility for fish. We watched one carrying a fish in its strong, sharp talons and listened to the calls that they made to each other.
The subject of the Belted Kingfisher was once again mentioned – and, quite by chance one flew overhead. Not a good view, but enough to make a positive identification.
In the shallow, mirror calm waters of the saline wetland there were plenty of birds to see. Brown Pelicans were gliding in search of prey, more Magnificent Frigates soared and flocks of Blue-winged Teal bobbed and floated. In addition to the herons we had previously seen, there were a good number of Tri-Coloured Herons. These distinctively marked birds would dance and run a few paces and lift their wings to provide shade over the water that they were searching. At the end of last year there had been a Greater Flamingo sighted here (the fourth recorded in Jamaica) – but not today. We saw a couple of Lesser Yellow-legs, but really spent the time enjoying the fantastic scenery and watching a number of multi-coloured Glossy Ibis. Apparently, there is an increasing number of this species now residing here rather than being a predominantly migratory bird.
From this site we drove back to Black River town and then a few miles northwards through Middle Quarters (famous for its hot and spicy peppered shrimps) to Holland Bamboo Avenue – three miles of tall bamboo which grows on both sides of the road and forms a gothic style arch. It was halfway along the refreshingly green avenue that we stopped to explore a small roadside pond. Another gem! On leaving the vehicle and walking a couple of paces to the pond-side we saw Purple Gallinule in all their purple, green and blue glory. There were also some juveniles which made us think for a couple of seconds before positively identifying them. In a Guango tree there was a family group of Yellow-crowned Night Herons. The brown speckled youngsters very different from their very smart parents. They stood absolutely motionless among the tree branches while a small freshwater turtle enjoyed the evening breeze below.
Our last birding stop of the day was an old wooden property house near the village of Lacovia. Here the owners put out feeders for hummingbirds. As dusk approached, the Red-billed Streamertails put on a fine display of aerobatics and aggression. The larger males with their whirring tail feathers spent more time chasing each other and the females from the feeders than actually feeding. Their iridescent green feathers sparkled in the rays of the evening sun. Just as the males became complacent, the much larger Mango Hummingbird would zoom in and drive them away.
From the 90 feet veranda the property enjoys magnificent views of the Nassau Mountains and Cockpit Country beyond – also the Figuerero Mountains on which sits the cool town of Mandeville in the parish of Manchester. Below in the garden, a Vervain Hummingbird (smaller than some of the moths out there) was feeding on the tiny blue flowers of the Coleus: these are very similar to the flowers of the Vervain plant from which the bird gets its name. In the garden itself we saw Northern Mockingbirds, Jamaican Woodpecker and the first of the migrant warblers – the jewel like Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue Warbler, American Redstart and Prairie Warbler. Other endemics seen in the fading light were a male Orangequit (Blue Blaize) and Sad Flycatcher (Little Tom Fool). We were destined to get better sightings of these during the next day.
In Jamaica, the sunset twilight period is very short – 10 minutes to 15 minutes only. It was therefore time for a break before moving back to the town of Black River (the first place to get electricity in the island and famous for its old wooden fret-worked buildings and indigo dye industry in the 19th century) for an evening meal on the sea-view veranda of the casual and very laid back Waterloo Guest House. Our comfortable evening accommodation had been arranged at Fonthill Villas and Guest House. The house sits on a small hillock and commands panoramic views across the extensive property and its rolling wooded hills down to the Caribbean Sea.
We were greeted at daylight by a flock of Jamaican olive throated Parakeets chattering and screeching at each other from the top of the native Quick Stick tree in the yard. The bright green of their plumage was magnificent in the early morning light and well worth delaying our departure to Bluefields slightly. On the way down the property road to the main road we saw Shiny Cow-birds in company with European Starlings. The Shiny Cowbird is having a devastating effect on small songbirds and is not controlled as yet. We also managed a sighting of three Killdeer Plovers in a small mud hole.
The coastal road to Bluefields was previously known as The Old Post Road. For much of the way it follows the rocky, indented coastline interspersed with long sandy beaches backed by bright green mangrove. There are regular and tantalisingly tempting views of the blue and turquoise Caribbean throughout the 20 minute journey.
Historically, Bluefields is of great importance. It was home to Jamaica’s earliest inhabitants – The Taino Indians and both Henry Morgan and Captain Bligh (breadfruit and Mutiny on the Bounty fame) lived here briefly. It was also the chosen base of Philip Henry Gosse (Victorian naturalist) when he visited Jamaica between 1844 and 1846. For, it was here that he wrote his two famous books which still remain classics – A Naturalists Sojourn in Jamaica and Birds of Jamaica. These are now rare and very expensive books. Our bird watching tour was to follow in his footsteps on the lower slopes of the Bluefields Mountains. His wonderful descriptions of the area, its wide ranging flora and flora, the amazing views, still remain current. He thoroughly deserved his title – The Father of Jamaican ornithology.
In seeking birds in this area we have to keep in mind another form of migration pattern here in Jamaica - altitudinal. In winter, many species of birds come down from the mountains in search of fruit and berries which mature earlier at lower altitudes. They move up again in the spring. So, leaving the coast at Belmont, we drove via River Top to the start point of our walk on an overgrown parochial road at an altitude of around 450 feet above sea level. On either side of the track was a forest of trees – including Poinciana, Logwood, Wormwood, and Silk Cotton. On the shady path we found our first endemic of the day almost immediately – male and female Jamaican Euphonia moving through the canopy of the trees to descend on the fruit of the Jamaican Cherry Fig. After this, the endemic sightings came fast and furiously – Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Becard, Jamaican Vireo and Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, all the time flying above us were Turkey vultures, we were also treated to a fly past of a Red tailed Hawk. On a slender branch of a Poinciana our guide pointed out the moss, lichen and cobweb tiny nest of a Red-billed Streamertail. The female, its head and beak protruding over the edge swayed gently in the light breeze. I was told that these birds usually lay two eggs and have been known to have three broods in succession.
In front of me I saw some movement and glimpsed an endemic Arrow-headed Warbler. It was characteristically foraging in a thicket of twigs: unlike the migrant Black-and-White Warbler (also seen) with which it is sometimes confused, it does not creep up tree trunks. Then, from the same vantage point a male Jamaican Stripe headed tanager was observed on a bare branch: its striped head and golden and orange breast shining dramatically in the morning sun. We heard the White-chinned Thrush calling on a regular basis throughout the morning session and saw it many times. Like the European Blackbird, it forages noisily among the leaves and debris on the forest floor.
Moving off on another forest trail, we came across a Worm Eating Warbler. It was feeding very close to the ground in dense undergrowth. We were lucky to be able to watch it for several minutes at close range. This species I’m told is a relatively uncommon visitor to Jamaica.
As we returned towards the transport, we were suddenly stopped by one of the guides who had spotted a pair of Jamaican Todies. These diminutive green plumaged birds with a red throat were taking it in turns to fly at an earth bank. It very soon became obvious that they were scraping the earth with their feet and had just commenced excavating a nest burrow. The beautiful pair of insect eating birds, a mere 10 feet away, took absolutely no notice of us and just continued their gargantuan task to tunnel around one foot into the soft bank.
An excellent lunch was taken at a small restaurant beside Bluefields Bay. The bird watching continued though between mouthfuls – a Wilson’s Plover was added to the list and there was another opportunity to watch at close hand a Spotted Sandpiper (without its distinguishing spots).
It was though, soon time to get back to the serious bird watching – this time on a grass and scrubland area about 20 feet from the water’s edge. We were especially searching for the endemic Yellow-shouldered Grass Quit. In the morning we had the odd fleeting glimpse. In the afternoon, our patience was rewarded. We had a number of excellent sightings of this beautiful bird with its black head, golden shoulders and russet under-tail. Warblers featured strongly in this area: Black-throated Blue, American Redstart, Black-and-White Warbler and the relatively uncommon (in Jamaica) Magnolia Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler. We also had the opportunity to see where a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker had been feeding – in this area it had ringed a number of Indian Almond trees. Next came the Greater Antillean Bullfinch, locally known as Jack Sparrow. It loves to pick at blossoms and flower buds. The male is glossy black above and below with an orange-rufous superciliary stripe, throat and under-tail coverts. Our final birds of the day in this excellent area were the endemic Jamaican Elaenia together with the Caribbean Dove and the gold, yellow and black, Jamaican Oriole (both Jamaican endemic-sub-species). We also heard a Gray Catbird calling in the distance, but were unfortunately unable to catch sight of it.
So, with the end of our two day tour fast approaching, I just had time to add a Northern Waterthrush to the list as we returned to our base at Belmont. It was foraging busily between the roots of a Red Mangrove.
Helms identification Guide: Birds of the West Indies, was one of the best books that I travelled with.

Last update 27/08/2007