Monday, March 23, 2015

Yeah, Mon... Jamaican Birds

Jamaica doesn't have much of a reputation as a birding destination, which is a real shame, since the lush Caribbean island is home to 30 endemics (depending on how you split them and/or declare them extinct).

Red-billed (morph?) of the Streamertail (a.k.a "Doctorbird," Jamaica's National Bird), Blue Mountains

With round-trip flights to Kingston for $350, Natalia and I simply couldn't afford not to head to Jamaica for some spring break birding.

Jamaican Woodpecker, Blue Mountains

We started in the Blue Mountains, famous for coffee.  Areas suitable for coffee production (wet, mountainous, second growth) are always good for birding and the Blue Mountains were no exception.

Jamaican Tody, Blue Mountains

We spotted 15 endemic species (half!) in the first fantastic couple hours.  We were elated, and then began to worry that we had made a mistake in hiring a guide.

Jamaican Euphonia, Blue Mountains

It turns out that birding Jamaica is really, really easy...especially compared to the neighboring island of Hispaniola, where a third of the endemics are nocturnal, hyper-local, endangered and/or undergrowth skulkers.

Jamaican Oriole, Blue Mountains

Lyndon Johnson's (our guide, not the former US president) laconic attitude reflected the low-difficulty birding.  He arrived 15 minutes late to meet us, and then by 10 am when we had exhausted our opportunities for lifers in the Blue Mountains showed no interest in joining us for additional birding at a more distant location that afternoon.

Jamaican Pewee, Blue Mountains

So we continued on our own down the north slope of the Blue Mountains to the seaside town of Port Antonio.

Jamaican Vireo, Blue Mountains

Lyndon met us again the next morning to lead us to Jamaica's #1 birding site: Ecclesdown Road.

View from Ecclesdown Road

This narrow road follows a hill slope giving views off one side into tree tops and valley as it winds through wet foothill forest.  The topography is ideal for excellent viewing of forest birds, which are everywhere.  Fully 100% of the non-extinct endemic species can be found at this site alone and we managed to score all the ones we needed in just a few hours (those pictured and discussed below, plus: Jamaican Crow, Yellow-billed Parrot and Black-billed Parrot). 

Once again, by noon we seemed to be out of birds to see.  We asked Lyndon about White-tailed Tropicbirds, but rather than show us the spot, he gave us vague directions and went on his way.  When we tried to follow up on his tropicbird tip a couple days later we ended up lost and asking a lot of strange bird questions to bemused rural Jamaicans, who probably didn't know the difference between a tropicbird and a pelican.

Oh well.

The exception to the EasyEndemics rule in Jamaica are Crested Quail-Dove, Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Jamaican Blackbird and Jamaican Owl.

The Quail-Dove was the only one of the four that we might not have seen without Lyndon's help.  He showed us a trail off the road in the Blue Mountains where a couple can be seen foraging in the leaf litter. We got great looks at these and then after returning to the road flushed a third up into a branch where it sat dumbly for a solid minute.

The Jamaican Blackbird is supposed to be one of the hardest birds, but we saw a few each of the three days we spent birding in appropriate (wet forest) habitat.  Don't be fooled by it's mundane appearance, this is a bad-ass bird that has evolved to fill the empty niche left by the lack of foliage-gleaners and woodcreepers in Jamaica.  It can be seen gleaning the moss-covered branches or heard thrashing around inside large bromeliads.

Jamaican Blackbird, Ecclesdown Road

The Jamaican-Lizard Cuckoo eluded us until we saw 4 at Ecclesdown Road.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo (family-friendly view), Ecclesdown Road

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo (cloaca view), Ecclesdown Road

The final endemic we ticked was the Jamaican Owl, which roosts in a tree at Frenchman's Cove just up the road from Port Antonio.  Lyndon had no backup plans for this species, so we were relieved to see it in its usual spot on our second try.

Jamaican Owlinator (you have been owlinated), Frenchman's Cove

Halfway through day three and we had all the endemics in the bag, so we rewarded ourselves with a couple relaxing beach days at the paradise of Frenchman's Cove.  This place is a gem. The body surfing might possibly be the best in the world.

To top it off we saw a beautiful White-tailed Tropicbird flying around outside the mouth of the cove.  Awesome!  Goes to show that sometimes its best to let the birds come rather than go chase. This is especially true in Jamaica.

After a couple days in paradise we reluctantly pried ourselves away to return to the Kingston area and bird the inauspiciously-named Hellshire Hills.  The desert scrub here hosts a completely different bird community, including our target, the Bahama Mockingbird.

Bahama Mockingbird, Hellshire

The mockingbirds were mercifully easy and we were able to leave the hills before the hellish heat got too bad.

Bahama Mockingbirds, Hellshire
Yes, while all the birds that begin with "Jamaican" are endemic to Jamaica, it turns out Bahama Mockingbird can be found outside the Bahamas...

We got our final lifer of the trip in Hope Gardens in Kingston.  Ricardo Miller, the owner of Arrowhead Tours, who set us up with Lyndon, gave us some tips on where he had recently found a couple Northern Potoos roosting here.

Northern Potoo, Hope Gardens


In the end we probably could have seen all the endemics without guidance.  Possible exceptions were the Crested Quail-Dove, the Jamaican Becard and Jamaican Elaenia.  The Becard and Elaenia we only encountered once each and were able to see because Lyndon recognized their respective calls and pointed them out. 

Lyndon also showed us a pair of Caribbean Doves at the Crested Quail-Dove spot.  The doves aren't endemic, but have a small range and are shy and uncommon in Jamaica, so this was a nice bonus.

Speaking of doves, you may as well call Jamaica the 'island of the doves," because it hosts such an abundance and diversity of Columbids.  We saw 9 species of pigeony-dove-type-things.

White-crowned Pigeons clamored around in the treetops of urban Port Antonio

White-crowned Pigeon, Hope Gardens

And the endemic Ring-tailed Pigeons were practically raining from the sky along Ecclesdown Road.

Ring-tailed Pigeons (Jamaica endemic), Blue Mountains

We had to be careful not to trip over Zenaida Doves in Hope Gardens.

Zenaida Dove, Hope Gardens

We also saw a couple Ruddy Quail-Doves at Ecclesdown Road, but we dipped on Mourning Dove--an unbearable tragedy.

Spring migrants are starting to show up in North Carolina now, but there were plenty of warblers still laying about in the Caribbean (we got 12 species) where they compliment their endemic cousin, the Arrowhead Warbler.

Arrowhead Warbler (Jamaica endemic), Blue Mountains

So that's Jamaica.  Go there for the easy endemics, but do yourself a favor: embrace the island rhythms and save some time to relax on the beach.  Who knows, a tropicbird may just pay you a visit.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Hellshire

92 species seen; 32 lifers; other endemics not previously mentioned: Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Spindalis, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Orangequit, Jamaican Mango, White-chinned Thrush, White-eyed Thrush, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit and the likely-to-be-split "Jamaican" Olive-throated Parakeet.


  1. This birding trip was full of some cool runnings.

    Sorry about the Mourning Dove though. "Reason to go back," as they like to say.

    1. Nuff people say they know they can’t believe
      Jamaica we have a birdsled team

  2. Loved the report and exceptional photos! What is your preferred camera for this type of roaming? Can you recommend an affordable option to someone wanting to get started?

    Slightly different experience than our trip to Jamaica when we graduated highschool aye Scotty?...although your guide's demeanor seems apropos.

  3. If you want to be a 'real photographer' you need to buy an expensive DSLR and a bunch of expensive lens and lug them around in a huge camera bag.

    For easy/cheap mode, buy this:

    I use it for the 20 - 1200 mm range, but if you're not interested in shooting distant birds, there are options at a similar price point that might give better image quality with less reach.

    aye kinya sumting diffent bombaclod blessed.


  4. A great report. I had no idea that birding might be so easy in the tropical forest there. Yet another bucket list destination.