Mark Pretti Nature Tours, L.L.C.

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Jamaica Trip Report - the following is a summary of my 2013 - 2015 trips.

Having had small tastes of Caribbean ecology on the Belizean cayes and on islands off the Yucatan, I was eager to explore the real thing on the island of Jamaica which is well-known for its rich endemism.  Though I knew that the bird list wouldn't be long, I also knew that it would be interesting, not only for what is there (28 endemics and 17 endemic subspecies) but also for what isn't there - no wrens, trogons, woodcreepers, or antbirds, no hermit hummingbirds (though it does have native Heliconias, a hermit favorite), almost no native mammals other than bats, only one woodpecker, and less than half the number of flycatchers I've seen in my yard.  Welcome to the world of island biogeography.  

Even though Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean, behind Cuba an Hispaniola, it's still a fairly small place with an area of about 4,200 sq. mi.  Biodiversity on islands is affected by several important factors.  While location, particularly the degree of isolation, is important, itís usually size that has the greatest impact on an island's biodiversity. While this is generally the case in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean, Jamaica compares quite well with its larger cousins when it comes to overall species richness.

Our trip begins in Montego Bay, a popular tourist destination and an easy place to begin.  From Mo'Bay we go south a short distance to the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary, making a short stop at the local sewage ponds to look for the uncommon Caribbean coot, which we've had good luck with.  While Rocklands has some forest with pretty good birds (Jamaican tody, Greater Antillean bullfinch, and white-eyed thrush), the main attraction is the feeders.  While there are some "normal" hummingbird feeders hanging from branches and attracting Jamaican orioles, orangequits, bananaquits, and hummingbirds, the really fun feeders are small bottles of sugar-water that you hold in one hand while using a finger on your other hand as a perch for the many insistent, and very beautiful, red-billed streamertails that seem to really want to perch on your finger to get their sweet treat.  This is the national bird, and it's not only beautiful but common too!  Rocklands also puts out seed that attracts yellow-faced and black-faced grassquits, and several dove species.  The endemic races of common ground-dove and Caribbean dove are lovely and striking birds, and its a treat to see them so well.  Zenaida dove, a Caribbean cousin of the mourning dove, is also common here.  Occasionally, Fritz and Oliver, the local caretakers and bird experts, have a Jamaican owl or a northern potoo on a nearby day roost. 

From Rocklands we head further south through rolling hills to the wetlands, or what remains of the wetlands, of the upper Black River.  Much of the area has been converted to sugar cane production and fish farms, but fortunately some decent habitat remains and water birds are pretty well concentrated.  In addition to the common waders (great blue and little blue herons, great and snowy egrets, glossy ibis), the uncommon Caribbean coot is sometimes found here, as is northern jacana, common gallinule, masked duck, wintering belted kingfishers and ospreys, and resident black-necked stilts.  The main attraction, however, is the rare West Indian whistling-duck, a beautiful member of the waterfowl subfamily Dendrocygninae and found only in the northern Caribbean.  Along the edges of the wetland, there is some forest where a resident race of yellow warbler can be found singing, where loggerhead and gray kingbirds are fairly common, and where prairie warblers, vervain hummingbirds, and black-whiskered vireo are sometimes found.   Antillean palm-swifts, which we sometimes see in several places on the island, are fairly common as they race overhead at the wetlands.

We finish our first day as we arrive at Marshall's Pen, a 300-acre private property that is part bird sanctuary and part working cattle ranch.  The home of Ann Sutton, Jamaica's premier naturalist and conservationist, Marshall's Pen has a house that goes back over 200 years.  Although there's some seasonality to their presence, almost all of Jamaica's endemic birds can be found here.  Red-billed streamertails are, of course, common at the hummingbird feeders.  Fruiting trees attract white-eyed and white-chinned thrushes, orangequit, Jamaican euphonia, and Jamaican spindalis.  A fruiting fig during one visit was alive with these birds, and we enjoyed excellent views.  In the understory and along the garden edges are Caribbean dove, ruddy quail-dove, common ground-dove, both grassquits, and occasionally the elusive crested quail-dove.  Along forest edges and in the treetops we've seen Jamaican becard and oriole, white-crowned pigeon, the local race of olive-throated parakeet, both sad and rufous-tailed flycatchers, and Jamaican pewee.  In one of the barns is a nesting colony of an endemic subspecies of cave swallow.  Jamaican owl, found throughout the island, is probably most easily seen at Marshall's Pen, and while looking for a calling fledgling one evening, we ended up finding an entire family of these unusual birds.  In different parts of the forest and around the grounds we've seen three species of cuckoo - mangrove, Jamaican lizard, and chestnut-bellied - as well as Jamaican vireo and arrowhead warbler.  At night, croaking geckos, laughing frogs, and a freshwater crab that lives in water-holding bromeliads add to the tropical ambiance.  The concentration of birds and relatively easy viewing at Marshall's Pen makes for a memorable stay.

Our trip continues as we head east toward the Blue Mountains.  Before the ascent, however, we make a detour to the arid south coast where acacia and cactus scrub comes up against mangrove-lined lagoons.  While shorebirds and waders seem unusually scarce compared to similar mainland areas, and while this isn't the most bird-rich part of Jamaica, there are a couple of arid-country specialists here.  Far out near the tip of Portland Ridge is the only place in Jamaica where the rare Bahama mockingbird can be found.   Rare throughout its range, the mockingbird is found only in the Bahamas, a few islands off Cuba, and in Jamaica.  We sometimes have to work our way through dozens of northern mockingbirds before finding the beautiful (yes, these brownish birds are beautiful) Bahama mockingbird, but so far we haven't missed it.  While enjoying these large mimids, we keep an eye and ear out for stolid flycatcher, a bird endemic to Jamaica and Hispaniola and another one that we've consistently found here.

After the south coast, we work our way through Kingston, the capital and largest city in Jamaica, before climbing the narrow road into the Blue Mountains.  We eventually work our way up to 4000 feet where the mild temperatures and moist conditions favor cloud forest habitat.  Unfortunately much of the area has been deforested, and in some cases replanted with exotic pines and bamboo, but there are patches of native forest, and the birding is surprisingly good.  Our lodging here is at Starlight Chalet, a nice quiet place with sweeping mountain views and sugar-water feeders that attract streamertails, bananaquits, orangequits, Jamaican oriole, and wintering black-throated blue warblers.  While these species are fairly common throughout the island, you never get tired from them, and the show at Starlight is a great one.  Prairie warbler, sad and rufous-tailed flycatchers, and the occasional chestnut-bellied cuckoo are also around the grounds.

The adjacent cloud forest is full of many of Jamaica's specialties, including the rare crested quail-dove, perhaps the only bird on the island that I'd consider to be a skulker.  The occasional misty conditions and shadowy understory seem to provide the "cover" that these shy birds prefer.  Early mornings and evenings, when the light is on the dim side, is the best time to find the quail-doves which sometimes forage along the road edge.  One misty afternoon, when we found one working the road edge, we were able to get fairly close and enjoyed some nice views.  We were amazed when the dove seemed to ignore us and approached to within 10 feet, showing off the scaling on the neck, the rich maroon tones, and the unusual crest.  While such a sighting is unusual, they're someitmes found perched quietly in the forest, even on the edge of the road.  Other endemics we usually find here include yellow-shouldered grassquit, ring-tailed pigeon, Jamaican spindalis, Jamaican pewee, Jamaican elaenia, and Blue Mountain vireo.  One of the most interesting birds we've seen here is the Jamaican blackbird.  This all-black bird, often found alone, methodically forages amidst lichens, mosses, and bromeliads, a behavior that reminds me of some furnarids, Campylorhynchus wrens, and corvids from the mainland neotropics.  While they're fairly common almost everywhere, we've seen many Jamaican todies in the Blue Mountains.  These diminutive birds, like their cousins the motmots and kingfishers, nest in holes (very small holes) in banks, and March and April seem to be the early nesting season as we've seen several pairs checking out cavities.  Their odd call - a short series of raspy notes - is given frequently, making them fairly easy to find and see, which is great because they're hands down one of the cutest birds in the world.

The Blue Mountains are famous for their coffee which is reported to be some of the world's best tasting, presumably due to the long ripening period for the cherries and seeds in this cool and cloudy environment.  While that may be the case, it was disappointing to see it being grown as full-sun coffee amidst some pretty heavy deforestation.  Though it may exist, we never saw shade-grown coffee in Jamaica.  As we descend from the blue mountains to the north coast, we pass through small towns and patchy forest.  While the nominate race of the red-tailed hawk and the local race of American kestrel (which comes in both white and rufous morphs) are widespread on the island, both are often seen well along this route.  The kestrels are particularly beautiful, especially the mixed pair we once enjoyed at eye level in a bare snag.  Eventually we hit the coast and head a bit further east to the Port Antonio area where we stay at the beautiful Goblin Hill Villas.  The expansive and lush grounds have ocean views and are great for common birds like Jamaican woodpecker, Jamaican oriole, Greater Antillean grackle, loggerhead kingbird and olive-throated parakeet.  Their feeders attract two endemic hummingbirds - black-billed streamertail and Jamaican mango - as well as black-throated blue warblers and the ubiquitous bananaquits.  

From Goblin Hill, we follow the coast east to Ecclesdown Road, a beautiful spot with no traffic, good forest, and excellent birding.  In addition to the usual suspects found on most of the island - tody, woodpecker, oriole, grassquits, euphonia, spindalis, flycatchers - this area is one of the best for Jamaica's two endemic parrots, the black-billed parrot and yellow-billed parrot.  We've been  lucky enough to have them in nearby fruiting trees where several dozen of each species were feeding with white-crowned and ring-tailed pigeons.  This is also a great spot for the only corvid on the island, the endemic Jamaican crow.  As you might expect, these birds are noisy and reasonably conspicuous, but unlike our American crows, they aren't city birds, and we've only encountered them in areas with good forest.  In addition to a typical crow "caw" call, they have a wonderful yodeling-like series of notes that is frequently given from pairs or small groups.  Ecclesdown Road is also a good spot for the Jamaican blackbird.

Below Ecclesdown Road at some seaside cliffs there is a small nesting colony of white-tailed tropicbirds, and we always make a stop there.  This is one of the only spots in Jamaica to see these angelic birds, and so far they haven't disappointed us as we enjoyed anywhere from 4 to 20 circling in a small bay near the cliffs.

The birding in Jamaica is remarkably easy.  If you're used to skulking antbirds and furnarids and confusing flycatchers and hummingbirds, Jamaica is a refreshing change.  Identification is relatively easy, and almost all of the birds are reasonably conspicuous.  While the crested quail-dove is a challenge and requires some luck, seeing all of the endemics and most of the endemic subspecies is pretty straightforward.  There are also some interesting plants (many endemic), butterflies, reptiles, and amphibians.  Although Jamaica has 22 species of bats, on our trip they were, as usual, evening fly-bys.  The only mammal we did see was the small Asian mongoose, an animal that was introduced in 1872 to control rats in the cane fields.  It's a little weird to be in the tropics and see no squirrels, monkeys, rabbits, sloths or other mammals, but in the context of Jamaica's biogeography, it makes perfect sense.

The people of Jamaica are warm and friendly, and we've enjoyed good service everywhere.  The food is varied and interesting, particularly the meats with jerk sauce.  Our favorites were the side-of-the-road jerk centers where we've had some wonderfully spicy chicken and pork with baked yams and a fried dough called festival that's delicious.  Jamaica offers an excellent introduction to the interesting world of island biogeography.  For those who have yet to visit the Caribbean, it offers the chance to see, enjoy, and learn about many new and beautiful species.

Jamaican Mango, Blue Mountain  Vireo, Black-billed Parrot, Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo by Misty Vaughn 

Last updated: April 11, 2015.