Wednesday, 8 February 2017

JAMAICA 2017 (1-8 February).

In February I went on a week long trip to Jamaica with six very keen birding friends. They were a great team and made the trip very enjoyable, thanks to them all. The blog reports on the trip with some photos of variable qualitty of mine (rather too mjany of Blue-winged Teals I'm sure) and some much better one's taken by Barry Wright mainly of birds I didn't have much success with (Barry doubtless has much better of most others too). It is pretty obvious which Barry's photos are but they are all acreditted to be sure. I'm very grateful for him agreeing that I could include them. 

Introduction. A Jamaica trip in January or February 2017 had been discussed between various friends during the second half of 2016 but it wasn't until December that it started to come together. By mid December seven of us had decided to go, for a week, from 1-8 February. Barry Wright and I booked flights from Gatwick, 
 Neil Bostock, Duncan Brooks, Brian Foster, Jon Hornbuckle and Rod Martins from Manchester. Conveniently Thompson flew from both airports to Montego Bay on Wednesdays, the Gatwick flight arriving first, by 2.5 hours. We decided we’d rather be in one vehicle and Neil agreed to arrange it, with Brian as backup driver. Jon, Duncan and I started looking at reports and planning out an itinerary. Jamaican Owl was one of the key birds, Jon and Rod having missed it on separate previous visits, and was mainly seen with local assistance. Jon contacted Ann Sutton but unfortunately she wasn't going to be in Jamaica for the week we'd be visiting, ruling out a visit to Marshall's Pen, one of the better owl sites. ebird showed recent sightings at Rocklands (near Montego Bay) and Stewart Town but was not specific as to where and for a roosting owl one needs very specific information to stand any chance. It seemed best to visit Rocklands at the outset, in the hope a roosting owl might be there, then drive to the east and have 3+ days in the Ecclesdown Road and Hardwar Gap areas (where all the endemics could be found). We then planned to visit Hellshire Hills in the SE and spend the final day returning to Montego Bay. I booked cheap accommodation for us all for most days. Not having anywhere on the penultimate night gave us flexibility to be anywhere to target anything we were missing. This worked out pretty well.

Tuesday 31 January. Megan dropped me at the station to catch pre-booked train to Gatwick. Fortunately I’d checked its progress (or lack of it) online as it was over half an hour late. I arrived at Gatwick just after 23:00, caught the shuttle to the North Terminal where some noisy building work was going on. I found the quietest place I could and inflated my mat. It was comfortable but not a good night, those before trips rarely are.
Southern Rail on a non-strike day and my train is 34 minutes late arriving at Shoreham-by-Sea. It did mean I could claim back half by £5 fare.

Wednesday 1 February. I was up at 04:45 and met Barry at 05:30. We went to bag drop and had no issues with our slightly over-weight hand baggage. The flight was over an hour late departing but as we were expecting to have a 2.5 hour wait for the Manchester contingent at Montego Bay we were not overly concerned. It was a good flight with decent films and a couple of meals – the packet of biscuits in my hand baggage were not needed at all. We arrived an hour late but were pleased to see the Arrivals Boards showing the Manchester flight to be on time. It was although it took a while to unload. Barry and I met Jon then Brian, Duncan, Neil and Rod in the arrivals ‘hall’ and Neil dealt with the paperwork for the vehicle he had booked for us. Most of the rest of us sought out some local currency. Most ATMs were empty and the Cambios in the Arrivals area gave dreadful rates. In the end I changed some £ for J$ in the Departures where the rate was 10% better, but still 15% below base-rate. We loaded the vehicle which was very spacious and set off for the nearby Verney House Resort which I’d booked on booking.com. Despite having printed directions we struggled to find it, the road it was in being much longer and with an unexpected dog leg. When found the hotel was ideal for our purposes. Brian and Neil, our drivers, took the double room with the rest of us in one for 5. The others had a meal in the hotel while I finished my sandwiches. The only birds I had seen were some low flying Antillean Palm Swifts over the Departures building.

Thursday 2 February. I slept solidly to 01:30 then woke several times up to 05:00 when I read for half an hour before the others started to surface. We left the hotel at 06:00 and drove to Rocklands arriving just as it was getting light at 06:45.  There were a lot of birds zipping around by the entrance but in the half-light it was hard to see what most were, Stolid Flycatcher, Black & White and Black-throated Blue Warblers and American Redstart being exceptions. Someone emerged from Rocklands and we asked after Fritz, the resident birder. We were sorry to learn that he was very seriously ill but one of his relatives would be available to take us around although wasn’t really a birder. We asked about roosting owls and were told someone else would go and look for them. With our guide we wandered along a trail for an hour seeing a few things we mostly found for ourselves (Caribbean Dove, Ruddy Quail-Dove, a superb Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Woodpecker and White-eyed and White-chinned Thrushes). We then spent some time watching the feeders seeing Jamaica Mango, Red-billed Streamertails, Jamaican Oriole and Orangequit before being told a roosting owl had been found. We headed back 200m up the approach road to its highest point, our guide peering into the trees. Nothing obvious. He phoned a friend for help. Tension mounted and then his friend appeared and pointed it out, except it was a Northern Potoo. Somewhat disappointing under the circumstances, but it was still a very good bird to see and new for some of us, me included. We all felt an early result with the owl would have saved a lot of time in future, and so it was to prove, and Barry gave him his mobile number should a roosting owl be located over the next few days. It wasn’t hopeful as he had only heard the owl once in the previous week. We were charged $20 each for the guiding, nice work for a non-birder when taking around a group of seven, but I had seen 10 new birds including 8 endemics. We left at 10:00 and returned to the Verney House to check out. It had suited us perfectly, which was just as well as we would be back there for our last night in Jamaica. We departed at 11:00 and Neil drove us east, with few stops, following the coast to Fairy Hill. We arrived at 16:00 at Melrose Cabins, easy to find from our directions although the last 500m was on a rough track and the entrance too steep for us to negotiate in the van. We walked up the 100m with our bags to find the cabin, a tent, a 4WD and a young girl. She told us the owners had gone for a short walk and went to find them. Shortly after a very friendly young couple appeared and showed us around. It was their home and they had debunked to the tent for the two days we were there. We thought to be on hand should we need anything but we explained we would be birdwatching, going out early and coming back late. We asked about owls and they told us they sometimes heard one in the forest nearby. The house had two rooms, one on-suite with a large double bed in which they put a mattress and the other with a kitchen alcove, bathroom, 4 bunks and a mattress. Having the mattress made it rather cramped but we wouldn’t be spending much time there and the location was ideal. We drove to the Ecclesdown Road for the last hour of daylight, partly to be sure we could find it the following morning in the dark. We drove to decent habitat and continued walking down the road. We soon saw Ring-tailed Pigeon and Sad Flycatcher and were going around one bend when a Crested Quail Dove walked behind the next. We approached as carefully as it is possible for seven desperados to do ad saw the bird slowly walking away apparently unperturbed by the mob following it. That is until a mongoose appeared in front of it and it flew. The mongoose ran off, we waited but it did not return. By now the light was going and we returned, stopping for a decent meal on the way. Once back at the Melrose a short excursion playing owl tapes elicited no response and we turned in for the night. A brilliant first day with 13 new birds seen.
Stolid Flycatcher, restricted to Jamaica and Hispaniola and adjacent islands
White-chinned Thrush, one of the most widespread endemics


Jamaican Tody at Rocklands, one of the smartest endemics
an endemic Jamaican Mango on a feeder at Rocklands
Jamaican Oriole
. Not quite an endemic, it also occurs on San Andres islands. An interesting distribution as San Andres are closer to Central America than Jamaica and Jamaica much closer to Cuba, Hispaniola and the Caymans.
Orangequit, another endemic
Jamaican Woodpecker, one of my favourite endemics
Northern Potoo
roosting birds are regularly seen at Rocklands
Yellow-faced Grassquit on the road at Rocklands
Duncan and Bary buying bananas
view from Melrose Cabin, Fairy Hill
White-crowned Pigeon at Fairy Hill, a widespread Caribbean species

Friday 3 February. The cabin was a bit cramped but I slept OK on the mattress despite some heavy rain during the night. In the other room Brian, on the mattress, had left the shutters open, despite being warned about doing so, and was dripped on until he shut them. We were up at 05:00 and drove to Ecclesdown Road arriving at first light (06:30). We parked off the road on a bend and spent the next 3.5 hours walking up the road. It was excellent with lots of birds and little gradient. We were back at the car at 11:00 and breakfasted on the snack food Barry had bought the previous day. We then drove further up the road and walked another section, returning to the car at 14:00.  I saw 12 new birds: Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Black-billed Streamertail, Yellow-billed and Black-billed Amazons, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Jamaican Pewee, Jamaican Becard, Blue Mountain Vireo, Jamaican Crow, Jamaican Euphonia, Arrowhead Warbler and Jamaican Spindalis. Jamaican Tody and Woodpecker had already become firm favourites. We drove back past Fairy Hill to San San where we asked at Mockingbird Hill about owls. We could access the property for $10 each but the owl expert was a waitress who wasn’t working that week – the whole place had a rather shut-up feel to it. Times were hard right across Jamaica we were told with tourist numbers well down. We declined the offer and birded the nearby San San Road finding a Jamaican Vireo and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. At dusk we were back at the Mockingbird Hill entrance road, a historic owl site, but a local disco blasting out high volume reggae moved us on. My friend Nick Preston had seen the owl in the car park at Frenchman’s Cove (an exclusive resort). It was on our way back and we called in to find a watchman behind a large closed gate, inside looked like rather open parkland. Of the car park there was no obvious sign. There was no way we could blag our way in so we walked along a track running beside the perimeter wall, forest on the other side, playing tapes. After a while one responded from the forest and probably wasn’t far away but we failed to entice it across the track or spotlight in in the trees. It soon lost interest and we went for a meal, me having a rather nice chicken with sweet potato chips. Back at Melrose I swapped the mattress for Rod’s top bunk which was considered a good deal all around. Another brilliant day with another 13 new birds, leaving us with only six more specialities to see. We had another 3.5 days in which to do it in, but we were at the stage of needing to focus on each one. Top of the list was the owl with another early start required.
superb forest at Ecclesdown Road, extreme eastern Jamaica
White-crowned Pigeon
Ring-tailed Pigeon, a Jamaican endemic
Jamaican Pewee on Ecclesdown Road (photo Barry Wright)
having a rest on the Ecclesdown Road - Brian, me, Jon, Duncan, Rod and Neil (photo Barry Wright)
further up the road
Yellow-billed Parrot, another endemic
more colourful in flight (photo Barry Wright)
birding on the Ecclesdown Road
Barry, Brian, Jon, Neil and Rod after breakfast
me on Ecclesdown Road
Jamaican Tody on the Ecclesdown Road
Arrowhead Warbler on the Ecclesdown Road, one of the most wanted endemics (photo Barry Wright)
Loggerhead Kingbird
widespread on the Greater Antilles and Bahamas
Rufous-tailed Flycatcher on the Ecclesdown Road
another Jamaican endemic
male Black-billed Streamertail, lack of tail suggesting a juvenile
out of focus Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo at San San
Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo (photo Barry Wright)
Jamaican Spindalis at San San
one of the brighter endemics
Loggerhead Kingbird at San San
Northern Mockingbird
White-eyed Thrush, the more secretive of the two thrushes on Jamaica


its rich chocolate head made this one of the nicer endemics
even nicer in Barry's image  (photo Barry Wright)
female American Redstart (photo Barry Wright)

Saturday 4 February. We packed and left Fairy Hill soon after 05:00, driving back to Frenchman’s Cove where we parked past the entrance gate and walked along to the area we had heard an owl the previous evening. One responded to playback several times, twice sounding very close, but it remained in the forest and we couldn’t pick it up. It seemed to move back and we found a path going into the forest which soon led to a horse paddock and homestead. The owl was not quiet and with the horse a little disturbed and the sky lightening we returned to the track. The horse owner appeared wanting to know what we were doing. A perfectly reasonable question as we had probably been on his land. Neil told him about the owl, which he knew and occasionally saw during the day. Barry gave him his mobile number and he promised to phone if he found it in the next couple of days. It started raining hard so we drove on into San San for coffee, some of the group found it hard to operate without. It eased off and we drove to San San Police Station Road. We parked just past the police station and started walking up the road but no sooner had we started than the rain returned. A mile or two up the road, at the entrance to Shoreham Green Villa, the forest fragmented and we waited for the rain to ease. When it did we wandered back down, soon hearing one then two Jamaican Lizard Cuckoos calling one on each side of the road. We stopped and looked for the nearer bird but could see nothing moving and the calling stopped. We waited, it was after all one of our remaining targets. Rod had gone ahead and, when we hadn’t followed, came back and immediately picked up a cuckoo in the forest on the other side of the road. Both birds were there, higher perhaps than we had expected. It was hard to understand how else one had crossed the road unseen. They were on view for 20 minutes and proved to be one of the trip highlights.  Lower down we saw Jamaican Woodpecker, Sad Flycatcher, Jamaican Vireo, Jamaican Euphonia, Black & White and Worm-eating Warblers and a couple of rather secretive Yellow-shouldered Grassquits. The latter were new but unfortunately I only saw the female well so for me it wasn’t completely removed from the target list. Our next two nights accommodation were at the Blue Mountain Wilderness Retreat which I had found on booking.com. It was 7km off the road to Hardwar Gap but I hadn’t appreciated how rough and steep the road was. There had been a sign off the main road but nothing further. We went through Bangor Ridge village at 12:30 and the road started to worsen and drop steeply. We turned around and stopped to ask, some White-collared Swifts flying low overhead proving a welcome distraction. We were somewhat shocked to learn that we were at more or less the right place but it was at least a 20 minute walk along a rough trail! Perhaps the name was a bit of a giveaway that it would be remote (7km up a dirt track that took over 30 minutes to drive was that!) but we felt let down that the difficult access to the accommodation hadn’t been made it clear. Two girls from the retreat appeared and confirmed the bad news. We had intended leaving our gear there and driving to Hardwar Gap for the afternoon but time was now against us and we couldn’t afford the best part of an hour it would take. We arranged with the girls for them to meet us in Bangor Ridge before it got dark and lead us in. They would also cook for us that evening.  Neil drove us up to the Gap, it is not something I could have done without significant problems. It took him 90 minutes, the main road being not much better in parts than our ‘access road’. Verney House and Melrose Cabins had been ideal for our purposes but the wilderness retreat was too remote, we could have reached the Gap quicker from the coast. When we arrived the Gap was covered by low cloud. We saw very little, Red-billed Streamertail and another Sad Flycatcher for me. While at the Gap Jon and Barry investigated accommodation options and we called into the Ranger Station at Holywell. There was a six berth cabin available the following evening for J$6000, about £6 each. We booked it then drove back down to Bangor Ridge arriving just after dark. Our hosts duly appeared and walked in with us. I took all my gear rather than sorting out essentials in the dark. This was probably a mistake as the trail was quite uneven in places with some significant ups and downs. It also took near 30 minutes to walk than 20, with no owls calling along the way. The girls cooked us an excellent meal, my best in Jamaica, of chicken, vegetables and rice. I paid for one night’s accommodation explaining that we had expected to be able to drive to the door and didn’t have the time for another walk in/out.  The girls accepted our position. We retired to the bunkhouse where I expected a good night’s sleep. It wasn’t to be although entirely down to me. In the night the wind picked up and I found myself in a draught coming through high ventilation slats. It didn’t seem cold enough to do anything about – climbing down to my rucksack for a sleeping bag seemed too much effort. It wouldn’t have been and might have saved me catching a cold, although it didn’t really surface until I was back home.
Shoreham Green Villa at San San, White-chinned Thrush on the drive.
White-chinned Thrush at San San
Birding at San San
what we were looking at ...
Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo
one of our remaining endemics, and one of the nicest





Hardwar Gap in the clouds
Sunday 5 February. The two higher altitude species we were missing were Jamaican Elaenia and Jamaican Blackbird and the Hardwar Gap area seemed the best site for both. We left the wilderness retreat soon after dawn. Its setting, as the sun rose, was superb and for those not on a mission it would be an ideal place to get away from everything. We drove to The Gap Café 1.5km sign and started walking up the road. As we had come to expect it was Barry who heard a Jamaican Elaenia calling and after a brief search we located it in a tree top. We continued further up the road and soon hit the cloud. Barry then heard a Jamaican Blackbird. We tried playback although with a poor recording. It worked and Brian saw it fly in and land on a stump. It was just as well it had no subtle or really showy features as it was little more than a dark shape in the cloud. With our two main targets successfully seen we walked back to the van seeing a Rufous-throated Solitaire on the way. We drove up to The Gap Café arriving just before it opened at 10:00. I left the others to there and walked back to the entrance to Holywell where I went a short distance down a wide trail. Here I was delighted to find a pair of Yellow-shouldered Grassquits and this time I had good views of the male, it was unexpectedly stunning. I rejoined the others and we drove into Holywell. We called in at the Ranger Station and found a birder to ask about owls and the split potential Greater Antillean Elaenia. The owls were around occasionally but he knew of no roost sites, whereas the elaenia had been seen by the street-lights opposite the ‘pink house’, a km or so below the 1.5km Gap Café sign. We drove down to the pink house which was still in the clouds. We had been hanging around for half an hour or so when a car pulled up and asked if we were birders in distress. We didn’t realise it was Ricardo Miller of Arrowhead Tours, perhaps Jamaica’s top birdguide. I mentioned we were struggling with the elaenia which we knew was hard and the owl. He told us he’d seen an adult and juvenile at roost the previous day. This really caught my interest. Me: Were they at Stewart Town? Ricardo: Yes, have you been checking ebird? Me: Yes but I’m not sure where to go when there. Ricardo: You park at the Police Station.  Me, reaching for a pen then thinking better of it: hang on a minute, do you mind if I record the directions. Ricardo also told us they were sometimes seen at Woodside, a track off the main road a km or so below the Gap Café. It was also the best site he knew for the elaenia but they were very hard. We thanked him for his openness and sharing what we hoped might prove valuable information. Although the pink house site hadn’t produced the elaenia it might just have been more valuable in enabling us to connect with Ricardo. We drove to Woodside, parking by the entrance, and walked down the fairly steep track. An Ovenbird was feeding ahead of us. We arrived at some conifers at about the right place for the elaenia and hung around for a while. Barry, Rod and Duncan went on ahead disturbing two Crested Quail Doves which walked around the next bend. Barry came back for us and we continued slowly but they had left the track. We continued to a sharp bend at the edge of a more open valley where we tried again for the elaenia. No luck. We returned to Woodside, unloading our gear in a very spacious cabin. I inflated my mat and set out my sleeping bag, I wasn’t having a second cold night if I could help it. We walked down to The Gap Café for a very expensive but ordinary meal, I should have broken into one of my last packets of biscuits instead. We walked down to the edge of the valley at Woodlands as the light was fading. Two Crested Quail Doves came in to roost in a clump of bamboo nearby although I only saw one well. After dark we tried owl calls and heard a very distant response from beyond the other side of the valley – too far to close in on. I tried the weird Norther Potoo call and one immediately flew overhead and away. Fifteen minutes later I tried again and it flew back and landed on a stump of a nearby tree. Brilliant. We walked back to our chalet and I slept very well. We were down to one main target, Jamaican Owl, and we finally had a recent specific site for it. I was more confident than at any stage on the trip (other when the guide at Rockland’s mistakenly said an owl had been found) but still rather apprehensive. At least I know felt we had a fighting chance. The other bird I was after was Bahama Mockingbird which most of the others had seen on Cuban Cay’s but we wouldn’t reach the Hellshire Hills site until the heat of the day. Tomorrow could be make or break.
superb early morning views from Blue Mountain Wilderness Retreat
they improved as we walked back to the vehicle

the retreat's remoteness added to its character but made it a rather impractical base for a birding trip
approaching Bangor Ridge
a better section of the track
back at the van

birding the road near Hardwar Gap
Jamaican Blackbird near Hardwar Gap. Perhaps the rarest of the endemics, this was the only one we saw
Jamaican Blackbird (photo Barry Wright)
The Gap Cafe. I left the others having breakfast there
view across to Holywell
looking down towards Kingston
Kingston from Hardwar Gap
Black-throated Blue Warbler
one of the commoner wintering American Warblers
Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, perhaps the most surprising endemic and certainly the one with the least inspiring name. This was the only male I saw.
female Orangequit on feeders at the Gap Cafe
male Red-billed Streamertail doing the splits




the serrated edges to the male's tail feathers made a vibrating hum when it flew, often the first indication of its presence

two males


and a female




a male with moulted outer tail-fearthers
female Red-billed Streamertail
Jamaican Endemics poster in the Gap Cafe. After a successful morning we had now seen 27 of them and with the petrel and poorwill considered to be extinct we were left with the owl.m Some nice local names, I particularly liked Rasta Bird (Tody), Mountain Witch (Quail Dove) and Wild Pine Sargeant (Blackbird)
the pink house
White-eyed Thrush, locally known as Glass-eye
wintering Ovenbird on the track to Woodlands
always one step ahead

Ring-tailed Pigeon

Jamaican Tody (or Rasta Bird)
easy to model, paint a table-tennis ball and stick on a bill and legs
my favourite bird in Jamaica
still low clouds

Jamaican Woodpecker, I thought they were superb
Jon, Barry, Brian, Neil and Rod at the Gap Cafe. Superb setting but something of a rip-off.  This was the closest I took to a whole group photo with Duncan joining us later
Crested Quail-Dove (photo Barry Wright). I wasn't alone in dawdling on the Woodside track and missing superb views of two quail dove, Seeing them roosting in bamboo later on was some compensation

very slow exposure of a Northern Potoo
what a Northern Potoo really looked like at night (photo Barry Wright)
Kingston lights on the walk back to our chalet
Barry's bed
Jon crashed out, me still writing (photo Barry Wright)
 Monday 6 February. We packed and left the chalet at 04:45, driving down the entrance road to the Holywell car park. We walked to Woodlands hearing a distant owl from far below us. We walked to the sharp bend by the open valley hoping for a quail dove on the track but were out of luck, although Barry saw one in the forest on the way back. There were a few birds on or by the track and we added Prairie Warbler and probable Chestnut-sided and Cape May, the light too poor for certainty. We also saw Rufous-throated Solitaire, Ovenbird and Worm-eating Warbler. We walked back up to Holywell and left at 09:00 somewhat daunted by the prospect of crossing Kingston to reach the Hellshire Hills. It was slow at times but Brian navigated us straight through and at 10:45 we had left the road on a rough track and were on site. Dry spiny forest on rough lava making leaving the track difficult. It was very hot and nothing was calling. We spread out as far as was able in the terrain and after almost an hour Jon heard an unusual call and saw a mockingbird fly away. He was pretty sure it was it and Brian and I closed in. Brian told me where Jon had seen it drop in. Not too far away so I pushed my way through. In doing so I flushed it further, unseen by me but Brian got a good look and confirmed the ID. I hurried back but it dropped out of sight before I reached him. Frustrating. I went in again, more cautiously, and eventually saw it well if rather obscured. The others arrived and it stayed faithful to a small area although it never showed well. We left at 12:45, the only other bird of note I’d seen was a Jamaican Mango.  We took a rather circuitous route back around the edge of Kingston and then on a new motorway up towards the north coast. We turned off on a more usual Jamaican mountain road towards Stewart Town encountering some torrential rain, a section of flooded road – fortunately only a foot deep judging by a car coming the other way – and an articulated lorry with grounded trailer blocking the road while trying to turn down a narrow track. Fortunately after a good look around the driver slowly eased it down and we were able to continue. At 15:30 we parked as instructed by Ricardo and followed his instructions to the roost tree. That was the easy part, finding the birds we knew would be hard but how difficult could two medium sized owls be to find in a large but fairly open tree that could be viewed from most directions? Very. Seven of us looked from most angles and we drew a blank although a lot of other decent birds were in the area – both parrots, Jamaican Crow, Greater Antillean Bullfinch and Rod saw Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo and Duncan Yellow-shouldered Grassquit. Surely the owls could not still be in the tree? After two hours we were felling quite despondent, Jon even walked back to the police station to ask if anyone knew about the owls and whether there was accommodation locally, Barry having seen a place as we drove through Brown’s Town. Our main hope now was that the owls were still in the area and we might hear one at dusk enabling us to locate it. That was what happened but the bird Rod heard was in the tree! We looked even harder and I saw a round orange shape deep in cover that appeared to have eyes, I got the others onto it and we had a reasonable view in torchlight. The adult then appeared giving similar views. They had been there all the time but we were sure they had not been in view earlier. Success, but we were all keen to have better views. We walked back to the police station somewhat elated – all main targets seen. We drove back to Brown’s Town and checked into the New Meditation Heights Hotel. They were happy for seven of us to be in a triple, a twin and a double. The triple had a veranda and I slept there on my and Jon’s mats so Neil the driver, with another long day ahead, could have the double to himself.
another warm day in Kingston
another cloudy day in the mountains
Hellshire Hills
Jamaican Mango
a well hidden Bahama Mockingbird although being late morning and having forgotten to bring a recording we were fortunate Jon saw it.
it did briefly perch up but not like this for me (photo Brian Foster)
Rod and Barry tracking it down
lots of thorny vegetation
returning to the van
Black-billed Parrot at Stewart Town (photo Barry Wright)
one landed in a tree nearby


Jamaican Crow, perhaps the least inspiring endemic although it had an interesting call, described in the guide as semi-musical jabbering


Jamaican Crow acrobatics (photo Barry Wright)
waiting for dusk - Jon, Rod, Duncan and me of little faith ...(photo Barry Wright)
juvenile Jamaican Owl made the trip a complete success (photo Barry Wright)
 Tuesday 7 November.  I had a good night on the balcony in Brown’s Town but hadn't finished copying a memory card onto my PC when it was time to leave. Once in the van I then realised I wasn’t sure what I had done with an old card that had been in the reader. A quick look in my bag failed to locate it as did a return to our room and checks of the hallway and courtyard and a more detailed check of my bag during a breakfast stop. Fortunately nothing important was on it but it was still annoying. We drove to Stewart Town and walked back to the owl tree arriving just before dawn. The adult called from directly above us – it was I full view on an exposed branch but it soon flew. As it became lighter Barry picked out the juvenile in the tree and then the adult. Views improved with the light but they were still rather obscured and I had great difficulty focusing on them with my camera. We saw a few other birds (Merlin, Black-billed Parrot, Jamaican Crow) but with a long day ahead of us we left at 07:45, driving west. Our next destination was Elim Pools which would involve crossing the centre of the island on small mountain roads. We would then go on to Negril before returning to Montego Bay, most probably in the dark. A small roadside pool held a Least Grebe family, Glossy Ibis and Solitary Sandpiper and near Jackson’s Town we found a friendly roadside café where the others had a leisurely breakfast (I had some biscuits and checked my bag again). We continued to Clark’s Town where, after missing a turning, we were informed that the road south to Maggotty was closed. We could retrace our steps and try another route but travel on mountain roads was very slow at the best of times and our plan was quickly unravelled. We decided to skip Elim, it probably wouldn’t have been very good in the heat of the day anyway. We headed for the north coast road and were pleased when we reached it. Nice to see a white lines on the road again. We arrived at Verney House Resort at 10:30 and checked in. Our rooms were unoccupied so we were given immediate access. We sorted a few things, left our bags and were on our way. We stopped on the coast road to scan the sewage pools adding Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Lesser Yellowlegs and Spotted Sandpiper to the trip list. Neil saw Tree Swallow too. The coast was quite touristy, unlike the interior, and we arrived at Negril at about 13:00. The Royal Palm Reserve was a few miles the other side of town and we found it without too much difficulty, although we did have to pass a private sign and drive through an unlocked gate. We were met at the reserve HQ by a caretaker and some West Indian Whistling Duck on the lawn. While we were negotiating entry ($10 to walk around the boardwalk) another local started banging a drum and another 30 or so whistling duck flew in expecting it to be feeding time. We were escorted around the boardwalk (there were one or two loose boards they were concerned about) and to a tower hide. We saw some more West Indian Whistling Duck, a declining species best seen here although I’d previously seen two in the Dominion Republic. We added a few trip species – Tricoloured and Great Blue Herons, Limpkin, Killdeer and Palm Warbler. We had been told the whistling ducks could be difficult and we might have to wait for them to fly around at dusk but being back at the car at 15:00 we had just about enough time to continue around the coast to Elim. Being there at dusk would be ideal to. It would just be a long way back, maybe two hours across country, at least three back around the coast. We decided to go for it and thanks to Neil’s excellent driving arrived at 17:00. Elim was another site widely mentioned but without specific detail as to where it was best to look for, in this case, Spotted Rail. We drove down the dirt road to a drainage channel and parked, first walking back to overlook an obvious marshy area. We then split up a bit, some of us wandering back to try walking parallel to the channel. We were much closer to the reeds but views of them were more limited. Neil picked up a Spotted Rail at the base of some near reeds, Barry was onto it quickly and I saw it swimming across a small bay before walking around a corner. That was it, my 33rd and last new bird. We also saw Least Bittern, Night Heron, American Purple Gallinule and Rod a Sora. We left at 18:10 and attempted to head directly back to Montego Bay. Unfortunately Barry’s phone battery had died as he was the one we turned to when unsure where to go. Without it and wit our navigators tired after a long day and with inadequate maps we went wrong, or rather assumed we did ending up on a narrow road with boulders scattered on alternate sides like a chicane. At first we thought they were pothole warnings but there were then two fridges in the road to negotiate. After more boulders we decided we’d had enough and turned around to find a car chassis had been dragged most of the way across the road with a door blocking the final part. What had seemed an inconvenience now appeared quite scary. We quickly stopped with Brian and Jon jumping out to move the door before anyone malicious appeared. Nobody did and we were soon on our way, not really sure what had been going on. Further ideas of a cross country route, unless well signposted when out of the window and after two or three wrong turns, one where we had been correct to start off with, we were back on the Negril coast road. Half-way there, at Ferris Cross, a decent sized road was signposted 42km to Montego Bay and we risked it. It was fine, and we even saw three Barn Owls on roadside fences. We were back in Montego Bay at 21:45, found a KFC (I dozed in the vehicle) and were back at Verney House at 22:40. A long but very successful last full day.

birding at Stewart Town
Black-billed Parrot

Jamaican Owl
I was unable to find a view that wasn't obscured or hard to focus on
or both for the juvenile
no such problems for Barry - adult Jamaican Owl (photo Barry Wright)
Stewart Town Private Reserve
Glossy Ibis on a roadside pool on the way to Jackson's Town
Least Grebe with chicks
Solitary Sandpiper
group photo at Amber's Restaurant, our top pick breakfast stop (not that I partook). Duncan, Jon, Rod, Amber, Brian, Neil, me and Barry (photo Amber's cousin Natasha with Barry's camera)
Magnificent Frigatebirds over Montego Bay Sewage pans



meet and greet brigade at Negril Royal Palm Reserve, perhaps the best place anywhere to be sure of seeing West Indian Whistling Duck
I'd previously seen two in the Dominion Republic
Negril Royal Palm boardwalk
observation tower, little visible from it
Negril Royal Palm Reserve
American Kestrel
Great Blue Heron
Killdeer


these West Indian Whisting Ducks were more retiring

Elim Pools



Green Heron
Wednesday 8 February. We were up before dawn and drove to Tryall Golf course where Neil blagged our way in, fortunately the site was mentioned in the largely disappointing - at least for Jamaica - Caribbean site guide. It was very posh and we must have been the roughest looking group to ever visit. We had a very enjoyable couple of hours birding and taking photos of ducks and herons by a long reedy pool on the edge of the fairway, the first golfers only just appearing as we left. No luck with the hoped for Yellow-breasted Crake but we felt it a bit of a long shot. A female Lesser Scaup and a Peregrine which Rod picked up flying over and landing in the top of a distant tree were new for the trip. We decided to revisit Rocklands staying on the approach road to avoid any possibility of a guiding fee. We quickly found a potoo in the same general area as it had been previously then, after having been in the area for an hour Rod spotted a second, actually more obvious, bird. How had the rest of us missed it? It was nice to say a final goodbye to Red-billed Streamertail, Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Jamaican Vireo and Greater Antillean Bullfinch along with several wintering American Warblers. The latter included our first Magnolia as well as Prairie, Parula, Black & White and American Redstart. We also saw a Yellow-throated Vireo which the field guide suggested was a vagrant. We stopped for a final time at the sewage pools adding Least Sandpiper and come distant cave Swallows to my trip list. We were back at Verney House by 12:00. While unloading the van I found my missing memory card on the floor beneath where I had been sitting, and it still worked.  We packed and checked out by 13:00, when Barry and I were dropped at the airport and joined a rather long check-in queue. We noted the Manchester flight was shown as being delayed by four hours and Barry sent Neil a text with this bad news. Our flight was half an hour late and 06:00 GMT the next morning I was waiting on Gatwick Station for a train. It was even on time!
pools on Tryall Golf Course
American Coot
Common Gallinule
Blue-winged Teal
and Lesser Scaup
perfect light for photographing the teal











with Lesser Scaup



juvenile Little Blue Heron
Great White Egret
Black-crowned Night Heron
juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron (due to its all dark bill, thanks to Duncan for putting me right on this one)
Belted Kingfisher
juvenile Northern Jacana showing its very long toes
neat little rosette on its forehead



Pied-billed Grebe
on nest
Spotted Sandpiper
on the coast at Tryall


Royal Tern
Potoo watchers (photo Barry Wright)
roosting Northern Potoo at Rocklands
in the same area as we had been shown one on our first morning but this time we found it ourselves
and then Rod saw a second bird nearby







Greater Antillean Bullfinch
Prairie Warbler (photo Barry Wright)
Jamaican Vireo (photo Barry Wright). Its long tail which it flicked upwards is caught well in this image. Not something I was expecting when we saw our first.
Yellow-throated Vireo at Rocklands, 
not as rare as in the UK but still a vagrant
birding at Montego Bay sewage pools
Least Sandpiper, condom and Lesser Yellowlegs
the way many tourists visit Jamaica
It had been a very enjoyable trip, made so by having six excellent companions - a real team effort working to everyone’s strengths. That Neil managed to drive us on some really awful roads without mishap indicated a competence well beyond mine. Almost without exception Brian navigated us flawlessly, assisted when in difficulty by Barry’s phone (when the batteries were working) and Duncan’s GPS. Barry’s hearing was exceptional and he located several of the targets on call when the rest of us might have walked by them blissfully unaware. Most of the group had sharper eyes than mine but we all (me included) found a few things. I’d pre-booked the accommodation and worked on an itinerary with Jon and Duncan, it was one we pretty much stuck to. Thanks indeed to all. We would also like to thank Ricardo Miller of Arrowhead Birding for telling us which tree to look in for Jamaican Owl, the lack of specific site information is a real shortcoming of the otherwise excellent ebird.

1 comment:

  1. A good read and envy inducing photos!

    John Cantelo

    ReplyDelete