Trip Report for our Venture to Jamaica
December 14 - 20, 2014
December 14 Arrived Montego Bay; Montego Bay Sewerage Lagoons and drove to Silver Sands
December 15 Drive to Stewart Town AM; Good Hope Estate PM
December 16 Silver Sands to Oracabessa; drove to Port Antonio
December 17 Goblin Hill, Ecclesdown Road and San San Road
December 18 San San Road, Hope Bay and drove to Blue Mountains
December 19 Blue Mountains: AC Forest and Clifton Mount
What better than a trip to enjoy the tropical sunshine just before Christmas? Although the sunny island of Jamaica was anything but that for most of our time there, we spent the first few days dodging the rain and barely even saw a glimmer of the sun.
But there were plenty of birds to keep us happy. Starting off on the north coast near the second largest city of Montego Bay, we spent a few very damp hours viewing shorebirds and ducks at the local sewerage ponds. Highlights had to be the Ruddy Duck in their gleaming breeding plumage, along with plenty of Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler, both winter visitors to this part of the Caribbean. There were good numbers of Black-necked Stilts, as well as a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and good numbers of Common Gallinules. Unfortunately the persistent rain prevented us from too much exploration of the area.
We awoke the following morning and looked out to see the normally blue Caribbean gray and overcast with bands of rain sweeping ashore every few minutes – ugh! A few breaks in the rain enabled us to wander around the lovely Silver Sands neighborhood. The lushly planted gardens attracted Red-billed Streamertail and Jamaican Mango (our first of Jamaica’s 28 endemics), as well as Black-throated Blue, Prairie and Northern Parula Warblers. Steve and Linda managed to go for a swim, which was a good thing as the next day the weather was even worse making swimming conditions almost impossible.
Wendy Ann Lee is a local Jamaican birder and we were lucky to have her take us up into Cockpit Country. This area of karst limestone is heavily forested and the trail above Stewart Town enabled us to get a real feel to this part of the island. Along the way Wendy showed us several more of Jamaica’s endemics, including a locally rare Ring-tailed Pigeon, both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Parrots and the Arrowhead Warbler, which feeds slowly in the leaves as it searches for insects. Another highlight was the beautiful Cockleshell Orchid that was growing alongside the trail. We managed to get to the end of the trail before the rain once again took over and we splashed our way back to Stewart Town. A Red Stripe beer at the local bar was in celebration of some good birds and even the sun came out for a brief time enabling the local Turkey Vultures to attempt to get airborne. Wendy has told us about a couple of “pied” Vultures and we were lucky enough to see one of these strangely plumaged birds in the flock overhead.
The rain did not stop for long and after lunch we had an impromptu visit to the very beautiful Good Hope Estate. Begun in 1774 as a sugar plantation, it is now a private home and kept more as an historic property than somewhere to live or stay. The grounds were magnificent and some fruiting Gumbo Limbo trees attracted both Sad and Rufous-tailed Flycatchers – again, both endemic to Jamaica. Back at Silver Sands we were treated to the delicious National dish, ackee and saltfish. I must admit I was a little apprehensive of salted fish, but I should not have been. Verdict = delicious. The ladies who ran the house and cooked all of the meals did a great job creating meals for a bunch of hungry birders.
Driving east along the north coast was easily our wettest day with torrential rain most of the way and virtually no birding aside from a brief stop at Hope Bay, where a concealed Limpkin called from the dense wetlands and Turkey Vultures sat like wet umbrellas in the palm trees. En route to our evening accommodation at Goblin Hill in Port Antonio we stopped in at Oracabessa for a talk on turtle conservation by Mel Tennant. It was long, but enlightening and good to hear good news in the conservation world. I think we were glad we were inside listening to the program as the rain never gave up and we could sometimes barely hear Mel over the drumming of rain on the metal roof.
The rain was still with us the next day as we took a walk along Ecclesdown Road, a local birding hotpot. Our guide, Lyndon Johnson (yes, that’s his real name), was excellent and we had a very pleasant morning walking along this very quiet stretch of road. A low growl announced the presence of a Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo skulking in the vine tangles. With a little bit of patience we all managed good views of this great-looking bird. We thought this was spectacular until a couple of hours later when we found a Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo. With its long bill and striking pattern we almost had it voted “bird of the trip” there and then! We heard another Lizard-Cuckoo in the afternoon when we walked along San-San Road near the police station, but with the poor light (raining again!) we made little attempt to find it. The bird of the afternoon was the endemic White-eyed Thrush, which up this point we had only heard. The forest was thick and in the gloom it was difficult to see much definition, so our first couple of glimpses were just that, indistinct shapes that melted into the trees. Thankfully the next White-eyed Thrush flew in and landed on an open branch. Scope views! The villa at Goblin Hill was set in spacious gardens with hummingbird feeders that attracted in the very range-restricted Black-billed Streamertail, as well as the Jamaican Mango. Again we had a trip of talented ladies cooking our meals and yes, it was certainly good to arrive back from birding, crack open a beer or a rum punch and wait for a delicious dinner!
Thursday and Friday, our two days in the Blue Mountains, were much better, good birding at 4,500’ in dry conditions although the road over the mountains left a bit to be desired. As well as some great birding, with views of Blue Mountain Vireo, Crested Quail-Dove and Jamaican Becard, we visited a local coffee farm. Here some of the finest (and most expensive) coffee in the world was grown. Coffee is virtually a religion in these mountains and the industry, although small, is slowly regaining the position it had over 100 years ago. It was also good to see several of the older historic buildings being maintained, and our own lodging, Woodside, was originally built by the British back in the early part of the 20th Century. It was surprisingly cool at this elevation and we were glad of a log fire in the evenings spent at Woodside, our charming guest house after we had been out birding all day long. This time we were in the very capable hands of Paul and Mark, our staff at Woodside, who kept the house and gardens looking immaculate, as well as preparing meals for any visiting guests.
This was a very different style of accommodation on a birding trip, but I believe that it fitted very nicely into the makeup of the tour, adding a lot of history, personal contact and we did not have to race around looking for dinner at the end of a long day. Thanks to Lynda Lee for putting on a great tour – we will be back.