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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Jamaica

2019 Narrative

In Brief: We had an amazing short week of birding in Jamaica. All of the endemic species, and most of the endemic subspecies, revealed themselves to us in time, and nearly all were in the first two days. We also had a record number of species, with 139 including only two heard-onlys, and a surprising four new to the all-time list covering 16 years of tours. Jamaican Tody was by far the favorite bird of the tour, as it’s hard to imagine any other bird with a greater personality-to-mass ratio. The abundant Streamertails also ranked highly, and we even saw active nests of both subspecies (certainly to be recognized as valid species in the not-too-distant future). Among the fancier endemics, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo showed unusually well once we got to the higher elevations, while Arrowhead Warbler and Yellow-shouldered Grassquit were of more subtle beauty, appreciated for being quite unlike anything on other islands and for showing themselves so well. One more endemic worth mentioning is the Jamaican Owl, which we saw with some patience on the second night, but seeing a juvenile perched out in the open in the morning daylight at Marshall’s Pen was something quite special. But there were some pretty spectacular sightings of non-endemics, such as the White-tailed Tropicbirds at their breeding cliffs, the Clapper Rails that emerged from the mangroves 50 yards away, only to be eclipsed by one just 10 feet in front of us, and  the Bananaquits – ubiquitous but beautiful, easy to see, and a distinctive, endemic subspecies to boot. Not to be forgotten were the amazing views we had of a Yellow-breasted Crake and the rarities we lucked into – a pair of martins (likely Purple, but indistinguishable from the remotely possible Cuban), an American Flamingo (perhaps one that has been roaming around the north coast for a few weeks), no fewer than three Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (including one gorgeous adult male), and the country’s first record of Savannah Sparrow. We got to sample a good variety of the delicious Jamaican food, (including ample fresh tropical fruits of many kinds), drove through many small communities with people of all ages going about their daily lives, and saw many interesting plants and critters that make this island a unique natural history experience.

In Detail: On our first day, most of us were up well before dawn, as the Loggerhead Kingbird in the hotel garden was loud and persistent with its pre-dawn song. A Jamaican Woodpecker was also quite noisy before we met for a short walk down Kent Ave., where Antillean Palm Swifts were abundant, joined by a few Barn Swallows. A rare Bank Swallow made a brief appearance, but we had repeated views of a high-flying, all dark martin that was most likely a very rare migrant Purple Martin, though the unlikely but remotely possible Cuban Martin couldn’t be eliminated. At Green Castle Estate we watched a Red-billed Streamertail in an African Tulip Tree while we lunched, then down the trail we saw several Jamaican Orioles, a female Jamaican Becard, Black-and-white Warbler, and a Worm-eating Warbler. After our first Jamaican dinner, which included an Ackee appetizer, we quickly located a pair of Jamaican Owls on the hotel property. They insisted on staying high in the trees, sometimes buried in the crowns of the giant Royal Palms, but with persistence, we finally got views of one perched on an open branch.

We spent our first full morning birding on the Ecclesdown Road covering no more than just 3/4 of a mile of road, seeing an astounding 21 endemics on it and hearing a distant Jamaican Crow as well. We had only brief glimpses of Jamaican Tody for much of the morning until Karen spotted one at eye-level just a few feet away. Greater Antillean Bullfinches were particularly common, White-eyed Thrushes could be heard singing everywhere, and we got very lucky to find Blue Mountain Vireo and Jamaican Blackbird with little trouble. An Orangequit on the little known endemic passionflower Passiflora oblongata was quite a lovely sight as well. Jamaican Spindalises were common but flighty, so it wasn’t until our afternoon walk near the hotel that most got satisfying views of this lovely endemic.

An early morning at the hotel was enjoyable, and Jamaican Spindalises and White-eyed thrushes were the most obvious birds there. We set out again after breakfast around the scenic eastern tip of the island. Seeing White-tailed Tropicbirds up close is always unpredictable, so we considered ourselves lucky when four were flying back and forth immediately upon our arrival at Hectors River. Caribbean hermit crabs were at our feet, and we quickly found Caribbean Scrub-Hairstreaks before returning to the hotel via Ecclesdown Road. The drive westward along the north coast was highlighted by a surprise American Flamingo, perhaps the same one that had been at Ocho Rios and Falmouth in recent weeks. We continued up the Buff Bay road and had time to stop in the Blue Mahoe-dominated forests, which were blooming and alive with Red-billed Streamertails. It was also here we had our best views of a Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo.

Highlights from our morning in the Blue and Port Royal Mountains might have been the Crested Quail-Dove that everyone saw fly across the road, had it not been flushed by an oncoming car before we noticed it was on the ground. But Rufous-throated Solitaires were present in force, their ethereal song reverberating, and a few were visible as they fed on the roadside raspberries. An adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was an unusual find, American Redstarts were at almost every stop but still nice to see so well, and although we had seen a couple of Arrowhead Warblers already, an unusually cooperative pair at super close range made it to the list of favorite birds of the day. We continued to the southernmost peninsula at Portland Cottage where the birdsong resounded like a dawn chorus during the hottest part of the afternoon. Bahama Mockingbird was quickly found, so we worked the wintering warbler flocks, seeing several species including Ovenbird and at least three Magnolia Warblers. A lucky check in a likely spot for Clapper Rails quickly resulted in a vocal response of several birds, but we were quite unprepared for one to appear just a few feet in front of us in the pickleweed. The mudflats were also alive with birds, including some relatively close Stilt Sandpipers, but the best find was an American Avocet spotted by Duane. It soon disappeared behind some mangroves, but finally reappeared, and we were able to document this fourth or so record for Jamaica.

The dawn chorus of thrushes, woodpeckers, and even very vocal Jamaican Elaenias at Marshall’s Pen was unparalleled. A relaxed morning walk there failed to produce our two outstanding endemics, but we did find a pair of Jamaican Becards at their nest as well as a Vervain Hummingbird still decorating her nest with bits of lichen. But then a post-breakfast search for Caribbean Doves turned up a Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo followed immediately by a Jamaican Crow, and all 27 endemics were in the bag. During the rest of the day, we visited low elevation wetland habitats, which were more productive than ever. The Spring Pond at Font Hill was chock full of Common Gallinules, and one shocking highlight here was an American Crocodile eating one of them. We had great views of the largest concentration of Masked Ducks seen in years, a Sora, a responsive Purple Gallinule, and a pair of Least Grebes with chicks riding the back of one of the parents. Then we visited the very full Parottee Pond, where Caspian and Gull-billed Terns were good finds, up to three Least Bitterns were a surprise, and both species of night-herons, both immatures, offered a good comparison. Finally, the Upper Black River Morass was better than could have been expected. A Yellow-breasted Crake surprised us by walking out into the open, while a Spotted Rail acted more like its relatives by hiding amongst the cattails, though still partly visible as it cackled back at us at length. As we left the area, a Savannah Sparrow flushed in front of the first vehicle, a surprising first record for the country.

With all the endemics seen, we finally got good views of Caribbean Dove at Marshall’s Pen and enjoyed the delightful Jamaican Orioles there before we set off for Montego Bay with some productive stops. Grasshopper Sparrow appeared almost immediately at Martins Hill, so we had extra time to make a longer walk at Burnt Hill in the Cockpit Country. At least one Jamaican Tody made itself obvious, while a nest of Red-billed Streamertail with two eggs was right next to the track. Most enjoyable here was the variety of endemic plants, lizards, and snails that we saw before it was time to return to Montego Bay and bring this wonderful tour to an end.

Created: 24 April 2019