Endemic Birds of Jamaica
In April, Harry and I were generously invited to accompany a close California friend to Jamaica on a seven-day search for those birds that live only on that beautiful island and no where else–the endemics. Accompanying us were a Costa Rican naturalist guide (a friend who has traveled with us on several other birding expeditions), his wife (a sharp-eyed novice birder), and another person, whose good humor I vaguely remembered from a former workplace but whom I had not seen in thirty years.
Landing at Montego Bay, we arrived at night at Sussex Great House in St. Ann’s Bay on the north coast of the island. That was our superb base of operations for three nights, two full days of birding, and then again on our last night. A fine dinner with local specialties was served upon our 9:00 pm arrival. My old acquaintance, whose wit had only improved with time, brought out some aged Scotch, and soon we were all the best of friends on a sacred mission.
Jonathan Franzen, the American novelist and essayist, had inspired us all with an article he wrote for the Conde Nast Traveler a few years ago: The Rare and Endemic Birds of Jamaica and St. Lucia. We, too, wanted to see how many of the 28 endemic birds we might be able to spot on probably our one and only visit to the island. Despite its tourist resorts catering to tropical vacationers, Jamaica seems to be a relatively impoverished country with high unemployment. We learned from our guides that birds face population pressures in the form of poaching for financial gain, deforestation, and simple target practice for bored youths. We knew we would be visiting some of the last privately or publicly protected forests on the island and would be fortunate indeed to see most of our target birds.
The owners of the Hotel Mockingbird Hill, our second home base several hours further east on the north coast, arranged our week-long itinerary. This included two local guides from different areas of the island.
Wendy Lee, a native Jamaican, conservation activist and bird refuge owner, guided us on the grounds and on roads around the Sussex Great House our first morning and the following day took us to the Stewart Town District for a long walk along a forest road in Cockpit Country. In two days with Wendy we spotted 19 of the birds known only to Jamaica: the scintillating emerald Jamaican Tody, the cryptic Jamaican Owl (spotted uncannily by our Costa Rican eyes and ears, Fico Chacon), the strikingly bold orange, black and white Jamaican Spindalis, Red-billed and Black-billed Streamertails (hummingbirds whose males sport exaggeratedly long tails), Black-billed Parrot, Sad Flycatcher, and the Crested Quail-dove to name a few. Called the Mountain Witch by locals, the Quail-dove was the most difficult to spot. Catching a glimpse of the dark Witch as it emerged from brush, then retreated about 40 ft away on a forest road, we whispered our communications, waiting and hoping for a better look. Though it teased us with quick and furtive darts out of and back into the bush, we tarried in vain for a photo that day.
Roger Thompson, once a Jamaica National Parks ranger, was our second native Jamaican guide. His home region, the Blue Mountains, is a two hours drive from the lowlands and is famous to coffee drinkers world wide for its high quality and high price. The coffee plants are difficult to care for on steep slopes, harvests are small, and a new problem faces farmers: nocturnal robbers of their mature beans. Owners stand guard during harvest season, looking for the glow of cigarettes or flashlights on the hillsides before storming into the plantations to catch the miscreants.
On Day Three, Roger took us on to Islington where we saw the fabulous hummingbird known as the Jamaican Mango and the rare Ring-tailed Pigeon, as well as the non-endemic minuscule Vervain Hummingbird. Later that day we pushed on to Ecclesdown Road, one of Jamaica’s stellar birding spots, where we saw the constantly moving Orangequit, the crafty Arrow-headed Warbler, and yes, at last, an unimpeded view of the Crested Quail-dove. A plucky individual flew up to a branch in the open beside the trail and stared us down for several minutes!
Day Four was devoted to a pleasant rafting adventure down the impressive Rio Grande, two of us to a bamboo raft with its own boatman. The rafts were once used to ferry bananas to the coastal market. Day Five involved birding on our own in San San Bird Refuge and relaxing a couple of hours on the beach at nearby idyllic Frenchman’s Cove.
By the time we reached the Blue Mountains on Day Six, we had already spotted 25 out of 28 endemic birds. (There used to be 29, but the Jamaican Paraque was removed). Roger and Fico did not disappoint on the Hardwar Gap Road on our last day with more sightings in deep woods: the extremely rare Jamaican Blackbird and the White-Eyed Thrush as well as some exceptional non-endemics.
How lucky we were! By week’s end, only the Blue Mountain Vireo and Jamaican Elaenia failed to make our list. Some disappointment on such a quest is a given, but our efforts were deeply rewarded with 26 endemics and 77 birds in all. While driving to birding hotspots, our guides often added value by touching sensitively upon cultural mores, sharing exotic fruit recipes, and pointing out historical landmarks. On the trails, they signaled interesting native vegetation. Having stayed away from the resort hotels, we had a more unusual, and we like to think, authentic Jamaican experience than most visitors. However, we did fall for the same thing most tourists crave: jerk chicken and beer.
Birding with friends in a country with a unique culture and friendly people is a real bonding experience, and our group looks forward to future trips together. If one has a native guide and is tenacious, is up for lots of walking, listening and looking, birds find their way to your binocular’s sights. To be able to capture a photograph of these lovely and sometimes rare creatures is a very precious gift to carry home.
Wendy Lee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger Thompson: email@example.com
Federico “Fico” Chacon, Costa Rican guide with acute spotting skills and ability to learn the birds of a new territory in short order: firstname.lastname@example.org
See Jonathan Franzen’s article The Rare and Endemic Birds of Jamaica and St. Lucia here.