Jamaican Spindalis is the largest and gaudiest of this distinctive Caribbean family of tanager relatives. Photo: Rich Hoyer
With at least 27 endemic bird species as well as a host of Antillean and neotropical specialities, Jamaica offers some of the most exciting birdwatching in the West Indies. It is the only one of the Greater Antillean islands where one has a very good chance of seeing every endemic in less than a week.
A treasured part of our short tour is the opportunity to stay at delightful Marshall’s Pen, the 200-year-old working ranch, nature reserve, and home of biologist and conservationist Ann Sutton, who recently co-authored A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica. In these idyllic surroundings, we expect to see many of the island’s endemic birds as well as abundant butterflies, anole lizards, and treefrogs. We’ll also visit the desert-like southern peninsula and spend three full days exploring the more lush and mountainous eastern end of the island, with ample opportunity not only to see every endemic species, but to get to know most of them well through multiple observations at a relaxed pace. Delicious local foods (such as ackee, callaloo, bammy, and the famous jerk recipes) and a look at Jamaica’s fascinating history and culture round out a very special experience.
Day 1: The trip begins this evening at our hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Day 2: The birds right around our hotel might include the endemic subspecies of Vervain Hummingbird and Bananaquit and the introduced Saffron Finch, but more exciting birding awaits us, so after breakfast we’ll work our way eastward along the northern coast, making stops before lunch to check roadside ponds and mangroves for migrants and resident water birds, among which may be Clapper Rail and ‘Golden’ Yellow Warbler. All along the roadsides we’ll see the endemic subspecies of Loggerhead Kingbird, as well as any Gray Kingbirds that may have just recently arrived from their South American wintering grounds.
Depending on the timing of our arrival at Green Castle Estate, we may have some time before lunch to finally add some quality endemics to our list. The Red-billed form (or species) of the Streamertail is common here, and occasionally a Jamaican Mango visits the feeder as well. The endemic Jamaican Woodpecker, White-chinned Thrush, Orangequit (a curious bird, the only member of the genus Euneornis), and Jamaican Euphonia are some of the other birds we might find here. We’ll then continue eastward to our lodging for the next two nights. Weather permitting, we’ll also make an attempt for Jamaican Owl on our hotel grounds. Night in San San.
Day 3: Today we’ll look for birds at a slow pace along Ecclesdown Road in the Drivers River Valley. At the base of the John Crow Mountains, this is the wettest forest on the island — and the single most endemic-rich spot in the entire Caribbean. We’ll concentrate our search images on the difficult Crested Quail-Dove and the scarce Jamaican Blackbird above all else, though the birding in general is great fun. Crested Quail-Doves may be found walking on the roads at dawn (and sometimes later in the day as well), and their haunting songs should be heard from the dense woods, a sound that has earned them the local name ‘mountain witch.’ The blackbird, in its own genus Nesopsar, doesn’t appear to be closely related to any other blackbird. Pairs sing short duets, males perform display flights in the canopy, and they search bromeliad and vine tangles more like a foliage-gleaner than any icterid. The blackbirds require mature wet forest, a habitat much reduced in Jamaica, and this is one of the best places for them. Blue Mountain Vireo is also found here, sometimes appearing quietly and unexpectedly only a few feet away. The cheeky Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, noisy Jamaican Woodpecker, and delightful Jamaican Tody are more examples of the fabulous birds we should see here. By day’s end, we’re likely to have well over half of the island’s endemics under our belt. Night in San San.
Day 4: We’ll have this morning to either return to the Ecclesdown Road or look for birds the grounds of our hotel, depending on our success with the quail-dove and blackbird. We’ll also need to make sure that we’ve seen the smaller, darker, and proportionately longer-tailed ‘Black-billed’ Streamertail, which occurs only at this end of the island; it’s quite possible that we’ll even find it on the grounds of our hotel, a guarantee if they are maintaining feeders. Though both forms are currently considered to be members of a single species, it’s virtually certain that the Red-billed form found throughout the rest of the island is a distinct species from this one. After lunch we’ll make the drive into the Port Royal Mountains to our hotel, perched on a mountain slope overlooking coffee fields at the junction with the Blue Mountains. Night in Silver Hill Gap.
Day 5: We’ll spend the morning high in the Port Royal Mountains, where as much as 100 inches of rain a year supports luxurious and fascinating vegetation — highland trees such as the Blue Mahoe and a heavy growth of mosses, lichens, tree fenrs and bromeliads. The often elusive Crested Quail-Dove and Jamaican Blackbird are also possible here, and this will likely be our only chance for the lovely Rufous-throated Solitaire, an endemic subspecies that should probably be considered specifically distinct from the Hispaniolan and Lesser Antillean forms. We may also see Greater Antillean Elaenia, and Arrowhead Warbler seems to be most common in these mountains. Orangequits can be quite abundant in this area, and Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, the ‘old man bird,’ is often on our hotel grounds.
We’ll depart just before lunch for the radically different habitats of Portland Ridge. Here the arid acacia scrub resembles eastern Africa more than it does other parts of the island; it is home to the endemic subspecies of Bahama Mockingbird, Vervain Hummingbird, and Stolid Flycatcher. Searching for waterbirds in the mangrove lagoons and for northern migrants in the surrounding scrub will add to the day’s interest. We’ll work our way to our home for the next two nights, Marshall’s Pen on the outskirts of Mandeville.
Day 6: We’ll rise early and drive into the Cockpit Country, home to several birds not always easily seen elsewhere on the island. We’ll arrive in time to see the mist lift from the ‘egg-box’ hills that give the area its name, and more importantly, to view the early morning flights of Yellow-billed and Black-billed Parrots; with luck, we’ll also see them perched. The rugged karst formations here have been an effective deterrent to forest clearing, making the Cockpit Country some of the most pristine habitat in Jamaica. We’ll look especially for Ring-tailed Pigeon, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, and Jamaican Crow. We’ll return to Marshall’s Pen in mid-afternoon.
One of the best parts of the day at Marshall’s Pen is the evening meal on the verandah, the table full of delicious Jamaican food and the diners surrounded by the sounds of the Jamaican night - the voices of Jamaican Owl, Northern Potoo, and myriad amphibians. Night at Marshall’s Pen.
Day 7: We’ll spend our final morning at Marshall’s Pen, where the birding experience starts even before we rise, with the glorious song of the endemic White-eyed Thrush. It’s likely we’ll have seen all endemics by now, but maybe it will be this morning when we finally have our best views of one of the scarcer ones, such as White-eyed Thrush or Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo. We’ll conclude with a drive to Montego Bay, stopping to scan ponds, lakes, and marshes for additional species. If we’re lucky, we might see Masked Duck, Yellow-breasted Crake, West Indian Whistling-Duck, or perhaps a crocodile waiting expectantly under the heron roost. Night in Montego Bay.
Day 8: The tour concludes this morning in Montego Bay.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 27 April 2018