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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Jamaica

2016 Narrative

In Brief: Once again, for the 18th tour in a row, we managed to see all 27 currently recognized endemic species in Jamaica, and we had wonderful views of these plus so many other species, critters, and plants in this tropical paradise. One of the first endemics we saw was the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, sometimes one of the scarcer birds that will wait until near the end of the tour to show itself. We completed the set with great views of the scarce Blue Mountain Vireo, which had us a bit worried when it didn’t appear on the first four days, but when you’re on an island, you can’t be in a hurry. Jamaican Tody was voted the tour favorite, as it was seen every day, often very well, and like all todies is endowed with an inimitable charm. But close behind in votes was Crested Quail-Dove, which after our having thoroughly covered the best sites briefly showed only a couple times. Then unexpectedly at Marshall’s Pen one walked out on the lawn in front of the entire group, and everyone got to see it well. Other favorites on the tour were Jamaican Woodpecker, the two forms of Streamertail, the distinctive and very common Orangequit, an elegant and very close White-tailed Tropicbird, an amazing three Spotted Rails and a Barn Owl that emerged well before dusk at the Upper Black River Morass, the many migrants such as lovely Prairie Warblers and two Swainson’s Warblers seen unusually well, a breeding colony of Cave Swallows in the storage beneath the floor of our accommodation, several pairs of Jamaican Becards (the only becard in the Caribbean), and a last-minute Greater Antillean Elaenia that appeared suddenly where it was not expected.

In Detail: A first morning walk in Montego Bay was fruitful despite the more urban habitat. We saw all three species of hummingbirds, several warblers, Bananaquits, and our only Saffron Finches of the tour before heading to lunch in the lovely setting of Green Castle Estate. The food was very good, but the dessert of pineapple cake and soursop ice cream was particularly memorable. On the hot walk to the reservoir we came across several endemics, including Sad Flycatcher and Jamaican Tody, but it was the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo that was the real prize. We got to see the fruit of an ackee tree and smelled the crushed leaves of allspice trees as well before heading to our villas at Goblin Hill, where a most cooperative Black-billed Streamertail enchanted the group and a White-chinned Thrush hopped out in the open. Taking advantage of the lovely weather, we set out after dinner, and in a very short walk from our rooms were soon looking at one of the island’s more distinctive endemics, the Jamaican Owl.

A full morning on the Ecclesdown Road was a fabulous plunge into the island’s diversity of endemics, with sights and sounds unlike anything everyone but Rich had ever experienced. By the end of the day, which included some time at our hotel, a visit to the scenic coast, and a brief return here, we had seen or heard 23 of the islands 27 AOU-accepted endemics. The number of Ruddy Quail-Doves, many seen in flight, was very high, as were the flocks of Ringtail Pigeons, mostly flying between roosts and fruiting trees. We were lucky to have good views of both parrots (especially Black-billed), and we couldn’t get enough of those Jamaican Todies. Some birds remained elusive though, with Blue Mountain Vireo and Crested Quail-Dove being heard only. At the coast we were very lucky to get what may have been the day’s final flight of a single White-tailed Tropicbird, appearing immediately upon our arrival and giving spectacular views before vanishing into the limestone cliffs.

We had a relaxed walk near our hotel the next morning, where Ringtail Pigeons were feeding from fruiting trees and where we had our best views of Jamaican Woodpecker yet. A return to the amazing Ecclesdown Road snagged even more endemics, such as ridiculous views of Jamaican Elaenias showing their coronal stripes below eye level, Jamaican Becards, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, and close fly-bys of Yellow-billed Parrots. In the afternoon we failed to find the past years’ most reliable Crested Quail-Dove as well as the usually easy Blue Mountain Vireo, but great views of a Swainson’s Warbler and a most surprising discovery of a rarely seen Blue Mountain Anole (a lifer for everyone) were memorable highlights.

A pre-breakfast stroll along the road that connects the Blue Mountains with the Port Royal Mountains was one of the more delightful mornings of the tour. The sounds of Rufous-throated Solitaire (which we eventually saw in the scope) and the calls of Panton’s Robber Frogs mixed with a mountain chorus in a lovely setting. We had our best views of Jamaican Euphonia here, and we finally connected with Crested Quail-Doves, with one allowing scope views way up a dark ravine and another walking into the road briefly before flying off right next to the group. We then plunged into the heat of the lowlands, arriving at Portland Ridge in the early afternoon. The birds didn’t seem to mind as we snared all three of our primary targets, Grasshopper Sparrow, Stolid Flycatcher, and Bahama Mockingbird (Hill’s Mockingbird, if ever it is split).

It was an early morning departure to the Cockpit Country, a fascinating place that deserved more than just our few morning hours. We saw lots of great birds here, including perched Yellow-billed Parrots and Jamaican Crows, stunning Jamaican Spindalises, and most amazing views of very close and confiding Jamaican Todies. But Blue Mountain Vireo was the Hallelujah bird here, our final endemic, and superb views of it to boot. We reveled in the area’s amazing botanical treasures, watched the local color morph of the Jamaican Turquoise Anole change color before our very eyes, saw some nice endemic butterflies, and furthered our appreciation of the countless endemic snails. In the afternoon we had a big change of scenery at the Upper Black River Morass, where we saw an amazing three Spotted Rails, heard a fourth as well as some Soras, saw Least Bitterns, and at the last minute saw a Barn Owl emerging to hunt well before sunset.

A final morning at Marshall’s Pen allowed us to reconnect with several endemics, such as Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Becard, and Jamaican Euphonia (repurposing a becard nest). The unexpected appearance of a Crested Quail-Dove walking out into the lawn while Ann was beginning to tell us about the filming of the Life of Birds episode was the icing on the cake. But the most amazing find was a Greater Antillean Elaenia, a bird we had missed and given up on in the mountains above Kingston, the only place it’s known to breed with any regularity. But since it was the only bird we hadn’t seen, some trolling with song in an area where it had once been seen decades earlier resulted in a vocal response from the highest trees. With some patience and persistence, everyone saw the bird, a distinctive Elaenia with very yellow underparts and striking wingbars. Another highlight from the day was a tour of the Marshalls’ Pen Great House and history lecture by Ann Sutton before we departed for Montego Bay. We padded the list with some fun shorebirds at Parottee then had a finale at Rockland’s, where we were shown day-roosting Northern Potoo and Jamaican Owl by Fritz, as well as had hummingbirds perch on our fingers.

One last bit of birding on the day of departures padded the list even further, with Whimbrel, Stilt Sandpiper, and Palm Warbler behind the airport. It was a gentle end to a wonderful week of amazing birds, lizards, plants, snails, and wonderful company.

 Rich Hoyer

April 2016

Updated: n/a