Jamaica 2014

...with Simon Papps

4th - 11th April

In this thoroughly enjoyable tour we managed to record all 28 of the 'gettable' Jamaican endemics, including enigmatic birds such as both of the streamertail hummingbirds, both endemic cuckoos and Jamaican Tody, plus superb views of more than a dozen individuals of the supposedly elusive Crested Quail-Dove. In addition we logged a further dozen regional endemics, the likes of Jamaican Oriole, Rufous-throated Solitaire and the tiny Vervain Hummingbird (the second-smallest bird in the world). A strong cast of North American migrants, seabirds such as White-tailed Tropicbird, splendid scenery on the coast and in the Blue Mountains, great weather and food, and very friendly people all contributed towards making this a wonderful and very memorable experience for all participants. Thanks are due to our Jamaican guides Ricardo and Lyndon for their help, especially in locating many of the more elusive species.

Friday 4th April 2014

Our flight landed promptly at 15.35 and after clearing customs, picking up the vehicle and meeting local guide Ricardo there was just enough time to sample a few Jamaican birds before nightfall. Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls and Royal and Sandwich (or Cabot's for those who split them) Terns were all common and conspicuous in Kingston Harbour. An adult Little Blue Heron fished close to where we were standing, while Belted Kingfisher and Spotted Sandpiper flew past and we picked out a somewhat unglamorous rarity/scarcity in the form of an immature American Herring Gull.

On the drive to Kingston we picked up our first Greater Antillean Grackles and Northern Mockingbirds. while in the grounds of Devon House, where we stopped for supper, we watched our first Red-billed Streamertails, or 'Doctorbirds', with three vying for territory in the same tree as the sun set.

Saturday 5th April 2014

Our early start at Hellshire Hills paid dividends as two Bahama Mockingbirds showed extremely well at close range before we'd even left the vehicle. Two of the site's other specialities, Stolid Flycatcher and Jamaican Mango, were equally co-operative and rapid in their appearance. While enjoying a leisurely stroll and an al fresco breakfast we watched Prairie and Yellow Warblers, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, 10 or more Cave Swallows, several Vervain Hummingbirds, Black-faced Grassquit, two Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Mourning Dove, and plentiful White-winged Doves, Turkey Vultures and Smooth-billed Anis.

The remainder of the morning comprised a tour of Kingston's sewage works. The first, south of Portmore, held many Snowy, Cattle and Great Egrets and Glossy Ibises. Grey Kingbirds perched on the wires at the entrance and waders included Spotted and Least Sandpipers, a couple of Lesser Yellowlegs and some Black-necked Stilts. Northern Jacanas and Common Moorhens lurked in the vegetated fringes and a pair of Blue-winged Teal was on the furthest pool, but perhaps the most spectacular sighting was of the half a dozen or so American Crocodiles of various sizes, including a particularly huge individual hauled out of the water.

At the next set of ponds, to the north of Portmore, we found Green Heron standing on the riverbank beside the road on the way in. The ponds themselves held many of the same species as before, plus numerous Brown Pelicans and Great Blue Herons, a Killdeer and three or four Grey Plovers. Osprey and Loggerhead Kingbird perched on nearby trees. But the start attraction was a series of well-vegetated pools just off the site and viewable from the perimeter fence. There were flocks of Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler hundreds strong, as well as three female Ruddy Ducks. Waders were also numerous and diverse in range of species. The count of Lesser Yellowlegs ran into many dozens, if not hundreds, and these were accompanied by a handful of Greater Yellowlegs, hundreds of Black-necked Stilts, a hundred or more Least Sandpipers, two Western Sandpipers, two Wilson's Plovers and several Spotted Sandpipers. Amongst the yellowlegs was a single Ruff, which is a real rarity in Jamaica and a new bird for local guide Ricardo. Migrant warblers in the bushes included several Palm and a Yellow-rumped.

At lunchtime we headed to Kingston for a bite to eat in Hope Botanical Gardens, where a female Red-billed Streamertail was building a nest on the light fitting above our dinner table! Exploration of the site produced Olive-throated Parakeet, Yellow-billed Parrot, Jamaican Woodpecker, White-chinned Thrush, Vervain Hummingbird and Antillean Palm Swift among many other species, while en route to the hotel a brief stop yielded Jamaican Oriole.

Sunday 6th April 2014

Steep slopes, hairpin bends, precipitous drops and spectacular views were the order of the day today as we ascended the Blue Mountains. At our first main stop, at Woodside, we had no sooner left the vehicle than Jamaican Todies and Ring-tailed Pigeons showed themselves very well indeed. A Rufous-throated Solitaire sang and then perched for a couple of minutes on a branch overhanging the road. White-chinned Thrushes and Red-billed Streamertails showed well as we ate breakfast.

Descending down a steep slope a Crested Quail-Dove began to sing and then showed briefly on the trail before bursting into the forest with a clatter and whistle of wings. We then reached a superb natural amphitheatre where we could watch the forest birds much more easily than on the trail. A flock of Yellow-shouldered Greassquits was active and several birds showed well. A pair of Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoos clambered around in an area of creepers and eventually gave stunning close views. Two Jamaican Becard nests were active, with the birds bringing in nesting material and manipulating the huge hanging structures.

Smaller birds moving through the area included Jamaican, Blue Mountain and Black-whiskered Vireos, Orangequit, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Jamaican Spindalis and Jamaican Euphonia. A couple of Arrow-headed Warblers gleaned insects from Cecropia leaves, while migrant wood warblers included Black-throated Green, Black-and-white and American Redstart. Sad and Rufous-tailed Flycatchers gave an interesting comparison of the opposite ends of the Myiarchus flycatcher size-scale.

On the walk back up the hill a White-eyed Thrush showed very well on the path, while back on the main road and closer to Hardwar Gap we were fortunate to locate up to three Jamaican Blackbirds and a Jamaican Pewee. Our local guide Lyndon gave us the lowdown on the Jamaican names for many of the species we were watching, and favourites among the group included Golden Slippers (Snowy Egret), Hopping Dick (White-chinned Thrush), Glass-eye (White-eyed Thrush) and Auntie Katie (Jamaican Oriole).

We arrived at Starlight Chalet in time for lunch and we made sure that we spent some time watching the bird feeders, which attracted Orangequits, Bananaquits, Jamaican Orioles and a multitude of highly territorial Red-billed Streamertails. Exploring around the property we came across Jamaican Todies, Black-and-white Warblers, Jamaican Pewees, Red-tailed Hawk and a pair of Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos. A Jamaican Elaenia showed well as we were listening to a singing Crested Quail-Dove, and another of the latter gave a brief glimpse as it shot down the slope and across the path, bisecting the group. A great day ended with mixed flocks of White-collared and Black Swifts scything low over Starlight Chalet. The chef made a statement of intent that he intended to keep us very well fed during our stay by producing a fine goat curry for dinner.

Monday 7th April

The short drive to Section at dawn involved a brief impromptu stop to observe a fine Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo at eye-level in a tree beside the road. Leaving the vehicle at the junction with the 'main' road, just as a group of coffee-pickers set off for a day's work, we proceeded on foot along the road, noting Black-faced Grassquit, Orangequit, White-chinned and White-eyed Thrushes, Jamaican Spindalis and a pair of Jamaican Todies giving good close views and briefly alighting on the same branch. We enjoyed good views of many of the species we first saw yesterday, such as Blue Mountain Vireo, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Arrow-headed Warbler and Jamaican Oriole. Then two Crested Quail-Doves started to sing, one on either side of the road, and all of a sudden one of the 'Mountain Witches', to give the bird its local name, flew up and alighted on a branch at eye-level, giving superb views for 15 minutes or more.

Elated to have got such good views of this often-elusive species we drove the 10 minutes back to the hotel for a hearty breakfast. Afterwards we retraced our steps back to Section, only to stop along the way for another Crested Quail-Dove, which flew up from the road in front of us and was lost to view. Around the very next corner yet another stood on the verge of the road, and this one stayed. We tracked it for perhaps 50 metres along the road as it did its best to enter the Monty Python 'Ministry of Silly Walks' with a tail-waggling, body-pumping strut which was part dove, part wagtail and part Jack Snipe! It walked through several patches of sunlight, showing off its beautiful colours and markings and we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune.

Further along the road we enjoyed some more good views of good birds including Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Jamaican Woodpecker, Sad Flycatcher, Jamaican Pewee, Ring-tailed Pigeon, and Blue Mountain and Jamaican Vireos. Less co-operative but also added to the day list were Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Vervain Hummingbird, Jamaican Euphonia and Jamaican Elaenia. Greater Antillean Elaenia was also heard but remained resolutely hidden from view in dense vegetation. A quite remarkable morning was rounded off with our fourth sighting of Crested Quail-Dove – another individual which gave prolonged scope views in good light on a roadside tree branch. It really is our lucky day.

After lunch we relaxed in the grounds of the Starlight Chalet, checking out the gardens and birdfeeders. Orangequits, Bananaquits, Jamaican Orioles and Red-billed Streamertails all showed well, the hummers especially so, often with half a dozen birds at barely arm's length, with the males' long tails making a distinct whistling sound compared to the regular hummer buzz of the shorter-tailed females and immatures. A Northern Parula was seen well from the balcony.

An afternoon walk around Silver Hill Gap resulted in good views of two more Crested Quail-Doves and we were almost becoming blaze about this sought-after and often elusive endemic. Other birds that showed included Jamaican Pewee, Sad Flycatcher, Black Swift, Jamaican Euphonia, Ring-tailed Pigeon and Prairie and Arrow-headed Warblers. But the star of the show was a Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo which gave excellent views both perched and in flight. A day of Crested Quail-Doves bookended by two sightings of a spectacular huge endemic cuckoo will live long in the memory.

A brief search for Jamaican Owls was unsuccessful but resulted in some fine views of fireflies and the night sky.

Tuesday 8th April

Another dawn start from Starlight Chalet with Yellow-faced Grassquit, Sad Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird and Common Yellowthroat showing in the garden, and fortified by bananas, cupcakes and coffee we set off to explore another area of mountain road south of Section. We had only been going for a few minutes when a Ruddy Quail-Dove flew in front of and then past the bus. A few minutes later not one but two Crested Quail-Doves showed brilliantly on the road, giving their now familiar bobbing strut. We followed one along the road for several minutes, while the other flew up into a tree and settled on a nest. What amazing luck we've had with this species.

Walking along the road we heard a Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, and it soon showed well in a tree close by. Another Crested Quail-Dove flew across the road and yet another perched in a tree in full view in good light for several minutes. We encountered many of the familiar ornithological cast from the past couple of days, including Sad and Rufous-tailed Flycatchers, Jamaican Pewee, Jamaican and Blue Mountain Vireos, Orangequit, Jamaican Oriole and Jamaican Spindalis. Two Caribbean Doves sang but would not show themselves.

After breakfast we headed further down towards Hardwar Gap, getting good views of Rufous-throated Solitaire, Jamaican Elaenia, Arrow-headed Warbler, Vervain Hummingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo and Red-tailed Hawk. American Redstart and Black-throated Green Warbler showed briefly.

Following a short stop at a local coffee growers' to pick up supplies (Blue Mountain coffee is reported to be the best in the world!) further birding near the Gap Cafe produced, among others, a couple of Jamaican Blackbirds and our first Antillean Palm-Swifts since Kingston.

We had the now-traditional post-lunch hour or so watching the gardens and feeders during the relatively quiet early afternoon period, enjoying good views of Red-billed Streamertail, Orangequit and Jamaican Oriole, plus fly-pasts by American Kestrel and White-collared Swift.

An afternoon walk around the Silver Hill Gap area produced White-eyed Thrush, Jamaican Pewee, Sad Flycatcher, Jamaican Tody, all three grassquit species, American Redstart, Arrow-headed, Black-throated Blue and Prairie Warblers and good views of Greater Antillean Bullfinch and yet another Crested Quail-Dove, this time crossing the road close to where we stood. Back at Starlight Chalet the regular evening fly-past of White-collared and Black Swifts rounded off another excellent day.

Wednesday 9th April

Birding from the balcony at Starlight Chalet at first light proved very productive in terms of final farewells to birds such as Red-billed Streamertails, Orangequit, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Jamaican Oriole and Sad Flycatcher. Male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers were in evidence and a pair of Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos showed superbly.

The steep descent down from Section to Buff Bay offered spectacular scenery and towards the end we started to pick up some lowland species such as Cattle Egret, Northern Mockingbird and Greater Antillean Grackle. Swarms of White-collared and Black Swifts hawked over the fields and Cave and Barn Swallows also joined the throng.

A stop on the edge of Green Castle Estate was well worthwhile for good views of one or two Mangrove Cuckoos plus Jamaican Mango, Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Oriole and American Redstart. We walked up to a small reservoir where a single Caribbean Coot was present among 30 American Coots. Ducks present were 15 Ruddy Ducks, four Blue-winged Teal and a drake American Wigeon, and other good birds included three Purple Gallinules, Least and Pied-billed Grebes and a Vervain Hummingbird.

Along the coast at Goblin Hill we checked into our very nice villas. Black-billed Streamertails and Jamaican Mangos worked the feeders and Magnificent Frigatebirds patrolled the coast. A short walk nearby produced glimpses of several adult Ruddy Quail-Doves and good views of a recently fledged juvenile. An Ovenbird and a Yellow-shouldered Grassquit showed well by the path and a Caribbean Dove flashed by while two others sang from the forest. Other birds seen included Orangequit, American Redstart, Jamaican Spindalis, Jamaican Woodpecker and Black-billed Streamertail. A short evening excursion resulted in hearing one or two Jamaican Owls.

Thursday 10th April

Rising at 5am there were at least two Jamaican Owls vocal close to the villas and one bird showed briefly. After breakfast we proceeded to Ecclesdown Road, stopping for good views of Common Ground-Dove along the way. Through a process of stopping the vehicle at regular intervals and walking we encountered the likes of Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Spindalis, Black-whiskered and Jamaican Vireos, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Ruddy Quail-Dove and White-crowned and Ring-tailed Pigeons.

A roosting Northern Potoo was an extremely welcome diversion and showed splendidly. Time ticked by as we waited for the hoped-for parrots and crows to show themselves. Two Yellow-billed Parrots flashed past low in the valley, while Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo was also seen briefly. Just as we were beginning to wonder whether this would be our day our patience was rewarded with superb views of two Black-billed Parrots perched on a stump. Then, of course, we found lots more of them very easily with perhaps 15 or 20 seen in total. A little further up the road a series of weird gargling calls alerted us to the presence of Jamaican Crows – one or two pairs – with good views of a pair preening each other being memorable.

Other good birds included several Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos and perhaps three or four Jamaican Blackbirds. On the descent we stopped again at the potoo tree and were watching when a lizard mistook the bird for a branch and climbed right onto its back, causing the potoo to open its eyes wide in surprise and disgust!

Back at Goblin Hill the 'quiet' time in the middle of the day produced good views of Black-billed Streamertail and Jamaican Mango. Walking the trails nearby gave us the opportunity to enjoy some final views of great birds such as Jamaican Spindalis, Arrow-headed Warbler and Vervain Hummingbird.

Friday 11th April

We set off early from Goblin Hill, but just in time to see our final Black-billed Streamertails, in order to reach Hector's River in the time of peak activity for the White-tailed Tropicbirds which breed there. At least a dozen of these graceful seabirds put on a fine show, with some birds coming close in shore and several pairs engaging in courtship-display flights one above the other. A family of American Kestrels in a tree overlooking the bay provided an entertaining sideshow as they tussled among themselves over a breakfast of lizard.

As we rounded the eastern tip of the island we passed many more American Kestrels plus Belted Kingfisher and a couple of Mourning Doves – the first we had seen of these two species since the start of the tour.

A stop at Yallahs Lagoon added Saffron Finch and Semipalmated Sandpiper to the trip list. Other birds present included Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted and Least Sandpipers, Killdeer, Wilson's Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Royal Tern, Laughing Gull, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird and Prairie and Yellow Warblers.

Continuing on to Kingston, a lunch stop at a jerk chicken/pork restaurant offered the opportunity for final views of Red-billed Streamertails and Black-faced Grassquits. And we ended the tour back where we started, on the shore of the harbour close to Kingston Airport watching dozens of Royal and Sandwich Terns and where the final species added to the trip list was a Ruddy Turnstone.

The Top 10 species voted for as 'bird of the tour' were as follows:

1. Crested Quail-Dove 37 points
2. Red-billed Streamertail 26
3 Northern Potoo 25.5
4. Jamaican Tody 23.5
5. White-tailed Tropicbird 12
=6. Black-billed Parrot 11
=6. Rufous-throated Solitaire 11
=6. Yellow-shouldered Grassquit 11
9. Arrow-headed Warbler 10
10. Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo

For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at enquiries@birdwatchingbreaks.com.

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