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A Report from

March 2001 Trip to Jamaica,

Alex Kirschel


Before talking about our time in Jamaica, I must pass on the sad news of the death of Robert Sutton, our host at Marshall Pen. I understand he was stabbed by a group of thieves in July 2002. Robert Sutton, a cattle farmer by trade, was also an enthusiastic ornithologist, and had published a book on the birds of Jamaica. He will be missed.

March 2001 Trip to Jamaica, Cuba and St. Lucia

We organised our trip from Miami, arranging flights to visit the three destinations as cheaply as possible, with scheduled flights. It unfortunately meant that our stay in Cuba would be restricted to seven days, in order to get the best deal on the flight to St. Lucia, at something like half the normal price. All flights were arranged through, for simplicity, although there was a ridiculous bureaucratic problem, where they could not issue the ticket to Cuba from their processing centre in the US, and eventually came up with the solution of printing it in Canada.

We made two accommodation bookings in advance, one at Marshall Pen in Jamaica, and one at the Fox Grove Inn in St. Lucia. Accomodation elsewhere was easy to arrange during the course of the trip. Car Rental for Jamaica and St. Lucia was booked online, but we failed to do that in Cuba, although found one of the five or six car rental companies at Havana airport willing to provide us with a car.

Jamaica; March 7-15, 23, 26-28

March 7

We arrived at Montego Bay airport early in the afternoon and quickly had a look around the bushes in the car park, as we waited for our car to arrive. We quickly spotted Bananaquit, Greater Antillean Grackle, Jamaican Mango and Loggerhead Kingbird there, and also added Antillean Palm Swift on our drive to the Orange River Lodge. Other birds seen on the drive were Magnificent Frigatebird and Feral Pigeon. The road up to the Lodge was pretty bad and a sign of things to come, also the Jamaican drivers must overtake you at all costs, so be prepared! At the Lodge itself, we added another two new species for us, Jamaican Crow and Green-rumped Parrotlet, while other birds there included Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Kestrel and Northern Mockingbird.

We then made the drive to Rocklands, arriving around 4pm, which is prime time for Hummingbirds. The show is good fun, but costs about $7 each, and we arranged with Fritz to take us around the local area the following morning. Red-billed Streamertail regularly sat on my finger to feed, as did Jamaican Mango, while seeds in my right palm invited Yellow-faced and Black-faced Grassquits. Other birds visiting the garden and balcony there included Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Caribbean Dove, White-chinned Thrush, Worm-eating Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Ovenbird, Orangequit, Jamaican Oriole, Greater Antillean Bullfinch and the tiny Vervain Hummingbird, identified for us by Fritz. I also thought I saw a Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo, or its tail at least, but by the time I raised my bins I lost it, and decided not to count it. We drove back towards Montego Bay to get some food and stopped by some pools adjacent to the A1 Road, where there were Cave Swallow, Spotted Sandpiper, Pied-billed Grebe and Black and White Warbler, of those not seen before, and a drive towards the coast towards the Freeport revealed Royal Terns.

March 8

Up early to get to Rocklands around 7:45am, and four new birds seen on our early walk down the Orange River Lodge drive: Zenaida Dove, Jamaican Parakeet, Jamaican Woodpecker and Jamaican Spindalis (or Stripe-headed Tanager). Other birds around included the widespread White-crowned Pigeon, Vervain Hummingbird and Red-billed Streamertail, American Redstart, and the ubiquitous Loggerhead Kingbird, White-chinned Thrush, Black-throated Blue Warbler and Banana and Orangequits. At Rocklnads Fritz proved his reputation of having a good eye and excellent ear for birds, although his whispered directions of "Its up there, in the green tree," were often baffling. He also told us a number of amusing stories, including one about how dangerous it is to have a cold shower on a hot day. After seeing an extraordinary almost albino Turkey Vulture we set off. He quickly pointed out the extraordinary and colourful little Jamaican Tody, Rufous-tailed, Stolid and Sad Flycatchers, Jamaican Pewee, Jamaican Elaenia, and Jamaican Vireo. All of these are endemics except for Stolid Flycatcher. Searching deeper in the forest revealed more endemics, Arrow-headed Warbler, Jamaican Euphonia, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit and the attractive Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo. Then came my moment of glory when I found the supposedly elusive Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo. Moments later Fritz came up with his trump card and a highlight of any visit here, the Jamaican Potoo. It turned out to be the only bird we didn't see elsewhere, although we didn't try that hard. The question we wondered was whether going on Fritz's tour was worth the cost. It certainly was enjoyable, but we feel we could have found all these species elsewhere, although it may have taken us a while to get to grips with all the Flycatchers. If I was to make a recommendation to other visitors, I'd go to Rocklands towards the end of the trip, if some of the above species had not been found elsewhere, and for a relaxing send off with the Hummingbird show. Other birds seen here included the three dove species already seen, J. Parakeet and Crow, Hummingbirds, Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and the other warblers, grassquits and finches seen before.

We then began our rather long drive down to the south coast and towards Elim Pools, arriving around 3pm. In previous reports we have seen that people have had difficulty finding West-Indian Whistling Ducks here, but we had a lot of luck with this species throughout the trip. We followed the directions in Gruff Dodds trip report which were excellent virtually throughout, and as soon as we got out of the car, Stavros got his scope on the ducks. West-Indian Whistling Ducks, seven of them, and crippling views! There were a lot of Coots there, but one was definitely a Caribbean Coot, a second had some dirt on its face, but may also have been, while the rest were American. Birding here was enjoyable as we spotted a number of interesting birds. Amongst the commoner Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored, Green and Black-crowned Night Herons, Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Blue-winged Teal and N. Shoveler, Common Moorhen, Black-necked Stilt and Least Sandpiper; there were six Northern Jacanas, Purple Gallinule, Osprey, Smooth-billed Ani, Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, and on a short drive up the perpendicular we found a Peregrine. We then drove on to Mandeville, seeing more Anis and a Magnificent Frigatebird. We spent the night at the Kariba Kariba Guest House, and visited the very popular Mandeville KFC, where the Hot Wings portions are excellent value for money!

March 9

Up very early, before dawn, for our drive to Burnt Hill to look for parrots. This is the one place where Gruff Dodds directions threw us off course, where we took the left fork after 4.4km as suggested and wasted nearly an hour. You must take the right fork as the sign suggests. The light was a problem at Burnt Hill, and most of the parrots flying overhead were no more than sillouettes. The first few that settled down on some protruding branches were Black-billed Parrots. More flying over were also Black-billed. A pigeon flew by in the distance and Stavros identified it as a Ring-tailed, I couldn't make out the tail markings myself, and wasn't happy. We were getting bored waiting around, but eventually a Yellow-billed Parrot sat on a distant treetop and we got good scope views. Other regulars around included Jamaican Tody, Woodpecker, Spindalis and Crow, and lots of Jamaican Parakeets, which have longer tails and a different pitched call to the parrots. On the drive back, there was a Red-tailed Hawk at Wait-a-bit, and locals in the road tried to get money off us for road works.

We birded around Marshall Pen in the afternoon, although not staying there that night. These are private grounds and the Sutton's only allowed us to bird here because they originally could not book us for both nights that we asked for. You will need to stay here to bird the area, and it is a must, as many birds won't be seen elsewhere. In the front pond there were a couple of Least Grebes, but we only found one other new bird on our walk around, the White-eyed Thrush. Other highlights included Jamaican Lizard and Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos, and Jamaican Pewee. Stavros got a glimpse of what he thought was a Crested Quail Dove, but he couldn't be sure, and it plagued him for much of the trip. New bird numbers had really settled down now. We can also question whether Burnt Hill was that important to visit. It is still regarded as the best place for Yellow-billed Parrot, but they aren't easy.

March 10

Up early and quickly over to Marshall Pen, birding before moving our things into the guesthouse. Birding is quite tiring here, as we tackled several inclines on heavy ground, but it is well worth it. Most of the excitement was past the 'Becard Tree', through all the gates into to the thick stuff on the left. In here we split up and went our own way along the 'paths' as Quail Doves are likely to be flushed ahead and the person walking at the back may miss the action! Ruddy Quail Doves are more common and we both flushed several. As I tiptoed along a path I saw what I thought was a White-chinned Thrush walk behind a rock a few feet from me. I decided to step back and look. It walks on passed the rock, a stunning Crested Quail Dove! Stavros couldn't locate one and we walked on back. We studied the Becard tree with care, looking at the nests that Robert Sutton suggested. There they were, sitting next to the nest, a pair of Jamaican Becards. We watched as they flew around the nest, went to feed, and returned. Other notable birds around included Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, Arrow-headed Warbler, Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo and Jamaican Pewee.

We had to decide as to where to bird in the afternoon. We finally agreed on Portland Ridge, which has been an unsuccessful visiting ground for former visitors, but Robert Sutton convinced us that we would find the elusive Bahama Mockingbirds, detailing the mileage we should take down the bumpy road. Before entering the final stretch, from the last village we could see some pools in the distance and decided to have a look at the shorebirds. We didn't stay long as we were soon surrounded by a group of a dozen or so youths, shouting things like "dead" our way. We didn't let it affect us, they were only around 13 years old, and were obviously shocked to see two white guys standing around their village with a telescope. I found a new bird for us, so it was worthwhile. A Semipalmated Sandpiper could be picked out from the more common Least and Western Sands. Spotted Sandpiper was seen further down and other birds there included Black-necked Stilt and some Herons. We then drove to the spot Robert Sutton suggested and found lots of Northern Mockingbirds. Some other birds there were more interesting, including the Jamaican race of Yellow Warbler, along with Palm Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Magnolia Warbler and Jamaican Vireo. This is a good spot for Stolid Flycatcher, Smooth-billed Ani and Green-rumped Parrotlet, which are all common here. Dusk was approaching and we reluctantly started heading back. As we entered the village again, there were some birds singing in the adjacent trees. There they were, Bahama Mockingbirds, four of them! We got excellent views and then drove off, seeing a flock of Shiny Cowbirds in the distance. On the way back, just after dusk, we saw what looked like an owl flying across a field. We got out of the car and I ran across the field to try and locate it. It then flew again; it was an owl, but not the Jamaican Owl we hoped for, but a Barn Owl. After seeing a second one there, we drove back to Marshall Pen, to look for Jamaican Owl there. Ann Sutton came out we had a quick look at the 'Owl tree' but no sign, she suggested we go and find another tree where it can often be found, we didn't find the tree, let alone the owl, and gave up.

March 11

We got up early, had a quick look around, the most notable birds being Least Grebe, Shiny Cowbird (unfortunately), Yellow-shouldered Grassquit and Jamaican Elaenia; and said our goodbyes to Robert and Ann Sutton. We left knowing we would probably have to return for the owl, at the end of our trip. We drove through Kingston, where some guy banged against our car window as we stopped at some traffic lights, and beyond on our way to Hardwar Gap in the Blue Mountains. A quick look around the Starlight Chalet, at Silver Gap revealed one of the target endemic species, the Blue Mountain Vireo. We then stopped for refreshments at the Gap Café and from there we saw White-collared Swifts. We tried birding at the Hollywell National Park, but found little of interest, and discovered how tiring it can be. We drove around and birded at various points seeing Jamaican Euphonia, Tody, Spindalis and Vireo; Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Arrow-headed Warbler and some other common species. Only two new birds today, and some elusive species to look for the next day; we dined at the hotel, which we wouldn't recommend. Generally the food in Jamaica was pretty bad, so we looked for fast food chains wherever possible! The hotel itself was fine, and reasonable priced. We called Dwight Price to see if he could take us around to look for the Blackbird, but he was unavailable; he suggested a place to look.

March 12

We got up early and looked around the hotel as recommended by the owner. He had shown us his home videos of birds he had filmed with his camera in the garden patio above. Soon enough, a number of interesting species turned up. Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos, Rufous-tailed and Sad Flycatchers were catching butterflies, there was a Jamaican Elaenia, but not the Greater Antillean that we had seen in the film. Warblers included Black-throated Green and Prairie, Ovenbird and Common Yellowthroat, among others, and there were Hummingbirds too. We then went to look for Blackbirds, early in the morning is supposedly best. No sign, no sound. We saw Blue Mountain Vireo and Jamaican Oriole and headed back for another look around the hotel. We walked down the road just passed the drive, and I saw a bird from behind, which I thought initially, was a Greater Antillean Bullfinch, due to the dark colour and rusty vent. Then it turned its head to the profile and I could see the bill and eye-ring: Rufous-throated Solitaire, excellent! We had heard many of them the day before at the National Park but couldn't locate them. I little further down we spotted a couple of rather immobile Flycatchers. We moved around, to get a better look; they were indeed Greater Antillean Elaenias. We searched around but founded nothing much more, grassquits, swifts, hummingbirds and the like. We went to the Blackbird spot again, and I immediately spotted a stunning male Rose-breasted Grosbeak! I tried showing Stavros while it was still in view, but he couldn't get onto it, and it dropped down the valley and out of sight. It is supposed to be quite rare here, so a good find.

March 13

Up early again, to look for the Blackbird. No sign again, but we relocated the Grosbeak. At that point Dwight and a couple of his friends drove up, and we asked them if they would like to see it. They were thrilled! We then spotted the female Grosbeak sitting next to the male! Dwight had to move on, we continued looking for the Blackbird for an hour or so, but then had to go, as we had a long drive ahead. First stop, Ecclesdown Road, suggested by Robert Sutton as a good place to look for Ring-tailed Pigeon. We stopped several times during the first 10 miles and saw lots of distant pigeons flying around. Eventually we got good enough views, although none were perched. We hit the east coast road and drove up to the Mockingbird Hill Hotel. Arriving just before 3pm as recommended. After about 15 minutes of sitting on the balcony, having a coke, and watching Jamaican Mangos and Euphonias, the main protagonist appeared, the Black-billed Streamertail. We got good views of adult and immature males, but no sign of a female. A Barn Swallow also flew by. We drove on hoping to stay at Crystal Springs, as we waited to hear about possible accommodation, we saw Ruddy Quail Dove among the commoner Common Ground and Zenaida Doves. No accommodation there, so we drove on to Ocho Rios, making one or two stops along the way, seeing Magnificent Frigatebird, Northern Jacana, Royal Tern and Killdeer of note. The hotels were expensive in Ocho Rios, so after dinner, we drove on in the direction of Montego Bay, stopping at a motel in a hamlet not far from Falmouth. We had the customary Red Stripes, and went to bed.

March 14

Got up and drove towards Windsor Cave. There were some good birds here, although nothing we hadn't seen before. It may have been better to come here first and work the other way round, leaving Rocklands till last. There were lots of Black-billed Parrots and Jamaican Parakeets, and I also got distant views of a Yellow-billed Parrot and a Crested Quail Dove. Cuckoos were in abundance, and Franklin provided the refreshments in the form of ice cold Tings and Red Stripes. We stopped a few times along the coast on our way back to Montego Bay, seeing Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Sandwich Tern and Lesser Yellowlegs, which were all firsts for Jamaica. We headed back to the Orange River Lodge for our last night and arranged for a friend of one of the guys that worked there to come and show us a Jamaican Owl, we hoped. While waiting, two Barn Owls flew over. Not a good omen. We failed last time that happened! We searched for about three hours with no luck. We gave the guy some money for his time, and went to bed, realising that two endemics eluded us so far, and we needed to find them on our return from Cuba and St. Lucia.

March 23

In between our trips to Cuba and St. Lucia, we had a day back in Jamaica and birded the coastal area east of Mo Bay. We found nothing new, but saw many more firsts for Jamaica. These were Ring-billed Gull, Wilson's, Semipalmated and Grey (Black-bellied) Plovers; Solitary Sandpiper, Willet, Grey Kingbird, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and we thought but couldn't say for sure, Mourning Dove. Also here were Belted Kingfisher and the Jamaican race of Yellow Warbler.

March 27

This time we arranged in advance to meet Dwight, so he could take us on a search for the Blackbird. We met him at the Blackbird spot, where there was nothing doing, and he took us to the 'officially closed' Fairyglade trail. This was through a really dense rain forest area, starting opposite the Gap Café. We didn't see much, but what we found was real quality. After an hour or so, a warbler caught our attention, "Swainson's Warbler" I cried. A big find for me, as I doubted I'd ever find it in Florida. We continued 'climbing' through, slipping here and there, and eventually Dwight stuck his arm out, pointing, "up there" he said. Sure enough, two Jamaican Blackbirds were feeding. We watched to our hearts content, and then made our way back. We contemplated looking for Black Swift with Dwight, but he said it would involve a really tough hike. We had just been on what we thought was a really tough hike, so decided to pass. We paid him, and made our way back to Marshall Pen. On arrival it was raining. Not good for the owl. Good for Ruddy Quail Dove it seemed! One was walking around in plain view not more than 20 yards from me! European Starlings showed up, as did Shiny Cowbirds. We decided to look for the introduced Saffron Finch, and succeeded, finding two on a track leading behind the house. This species was introduced over 100 years ago, but its numbers had fallen considerably of late. Other birds around included Caribbean, Zenaida and White-winged Doves, White-eyed and White-chinned Thrushes and Jamaican Euphonia. Robert Sutton agreed to help us look for the owl, and we were well equipped with powerful flashlights, and his tape. We got nothing from the owl tree. We went on to the other favoured spot, and we heard it calling from there as we approached. We looked carefully, but no sign. Stavros and I went out another couple of times in the middle of the night, after hearing calls, but again no luck. I went for a final look just before dawn at 5am. Stavros decided not to come. After a few moments at the owl tree, there it was, flying over the trees opposite, Jamaican Owl. Not a great view. Then again, it flew, I again got the flashlight on it for a split-second, and then it disappeared into the foliage. The views were disappointing, but I had to be content that I saw all the endemics.

March 28

Our last day of the trip, and Stavros was eager to look for Crested Quail Dove. We took differing routes into the Pen, and I failed to find one, although I saw lots of Ruddy Quail Doves. I watched the Becards again, and saw Vervain Hummingbird among others. We got together to head off, and Stavros told me he got superb and lengthy views of a Crested Quail Dove, among some Ruddys; which somewhat made up for his disappointment at missing the owl.


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