Jamaica: Surprising and rewarding destination for birdwatchers

Biologists love to see species they have never seen before. The best places to see endemic species (those that occur only in isolated geographic areas) are islands.

Remote islands far from mainland areas are often most famous for their endemic species. For example, 13 species of Darwin’s finches, 15 other birds and giant tortoises are found only on the Galapagos Islands. Hawaii and Madagascar are also bastions of endemism.

Many such hotspots of endemism are well known, but I recently learned of another, and it’s not so far away or difficult to get to — Jamaica.

Inspiration

In 2009, I got a copy of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica ($29.95, Princeton University Press) and it quickly disappeared on a bookshelf. A few months ago I picked it up on a cold winter day and discovered that 28 species of endemic birds live there. Now Jamaica had my attention. The more I learned about Jamaica, the more I wanted to visit.

I just returned from a quick six-day trip filled with four full days of birding. Having never been to Jamaica, I decided to focus on the six species depicted on the cover of the field guide (five on the front, one on the back). My goal was to see 20 of the 28 endemics.

Good start

On the first morning I visited Marshall’s Pen (a pen is a ranch), just outside of Mandeville. Greeted by owner Ann Sutton, who just happens to be the lead author of the field guide, I quickly saw a red-billed streamertail and a Jamaican tody. The streamertail is a hummingbird with two long trailing tail feathers that flap up and down as they move from flower to flower.

The tody is a tiny, vibrant green bird with bright red throat that makes its living gleaning insects from the underside of leaves. I saw it many times during the trip, and it quickly became my favorite.

As the morning progressed, I saw the Jamaica woodpecker, which resembles our red-belly, the Jamaican lizard cuckoo, which measures about 15 inches long, and the surprisingly large chestnut-bellied cuckoo. It seemed much longer than its 19 inches, thanks largely to its long tail that it fanned in flight.

As a reminder of home, a blue-throated warbler fed at some oranges Sutton had offered on a feeder.

Next location

Later that first day I moved on to the aptly named Hellshire Hills near the coast. It was brutally hot, but I picked up three life birds — smooth-billed ani, grey kingbird and Bahama mockingbird. At day’s end I traveled through the mountains to the northeast coast town of Port Antonio to spend the night.

On day two I walked along Ecclesdown Road to higher elevations. Here I picked up white-chinned thrush, white-eyed thrush and Jamaican crow. In the afternoon I relaxed for a few hours at the beautiful beach at Frenchmen’s Cove and picked up greater Antillean grackles as they scavenged among the goodies left behind by picnickers.

Before checking out at from the Goblin Hill Hotel the next morning, I spent about 30 minutes watching the nectar feeders on the patio. There I got repeated and excellent views of red-billed streamertails, black-billed streamertails, Jamaican mangos (a large hummer) and bananaquits.

I spent my last night at an eco-lodge in the mountains called Forres Park. Just before dinner, a Jamaican owl began calling. The field guide describes this owl as, “common and widespread, but hard to find.”

Fortunately two staff members were familiar with the bird, and they led a short hike into the forest behind the kitchen and put a spotlight on the bird. It preened, yawned, and stretched for minutes. I couldn’t have gotten a better view.

As a birding destination, Jamaica was a pleasant surprise. I saw 26 of 28 endemics and got another ten life birds. Other highlights include the tiny vervain hummingbird, white-crowned pigeon, crested quail dove, Blue Mountain vireo and the sad flycatcher.

Hire a driver

I must warn you. however, that it’s difficult to get around the country. The coastal roads are excellent, but crossing the mountains is torturous on steep, winding, pothole filled roads. I quickly learned to think of distances in hours rather than miles. Hiring a driver is the way to go.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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