Naturalist Journeys, LLC - Small Group Birding and Natural History Tours

Jamaica
February 14-25, 2007
- Trip Report
Guide, Peg Abbott and 11 travelers (7 continuing to St. Lucia)

Wed., Feb. 14 Arrival in Kingston, Jamaica
As we prepared to begin our tropical adventure, winter storms buried the northeastern U.S., causing quite a commotion amongst our intended airline arrivals. Those lucky enough to land during daylight hours enjoyed views of Kingston Harbor and sights of Brown Pelican, Royal Tern and Laughing Gull as they drove to our quiet refuge at The Gardens Hotel at Liguanea. How nice it was to see our first Jamaican endemic birds and two unbelievable hummingbirds – the Red-billed Streamertail and tiny Vervain – while soaking up some sun. Gaudy White-crowned Pigeons fed in brilliant red African Tulip flowers in the garden, and Black-faced Grassquits were quite tame and common, joined by fancy Zenaida Doves. A special welcome dinner had been planned for us, but Valentine’s Day brought the crowds out to our terrace restaurant at historic Devon House. The main course remained a mystery to us, as the wait seemed so long our group opted to settle for the first two courses and dessert!

Thurs., Feb. 15 Hope Gardens / Blue Mountains / Forres Park
This morning our early-bird coffee drinkers groaned to find instant Nescafe set out for us instead of the anticipated rich brew here in the land of Blue Mountain coffee – we fixed that for future days right away! Our guide, John Fletcher, led us to nearby Hope Gardens, one of several expansive gardens that date back to the British settlement days of early Jamaica. Here we had a splendid morning, with superb views of Yellow-billed Parrots perched, flying, preening, and seemingly posing for our pictures. A pair of American Kestrel vied for our attention, one of the pair being the red-breasted Cuban (Jamaican) race – with a very dark red chest and patterned wings -- quite a stunning bird. The garden was lovely and uncrowded at this early hour, and we could walk leisurely among the blooming African Tulip, Ceiba, and other trees. We spotted eleven species of North American Warblers and several of the Jamaican endemics with ease, including Jamaican Oriole and Jamaican Euphonia. A Least Grebe in the pond was a nice sighting, as were Zenaida Doves.

We returned to a feast: a full Jamaican breakfast of ackee, saltfish, eggs, and homemade dumplings -- yum! Fortified, we headed towards the mountains, taking a scenic winding road out of Kingston into the foothills of the Blue Mountains. We stopped at a small canyon, where our first view of the endemic Jamaican Mango was cut short by an American Kestrel – which quickly flew away with this gorgeous purple jewel in its talons! Down the road we heard the call of a pair of Jamaican Woodpeckers; finally, one came in for close inspection.

We were soon underway again, passing through Gordon Town and Irish town before turning towards Mavis Bank and passing a coffee mill en route to our lodgings at Forres Park. At the lodge, balconies at several levels of the building gave us great views of the hummingbird feeders, where Red-billed Streamertail were numerous and tame. We walked up into the coffee plantation on a steep trail and were rewarded with good views of Ring-tailed Pigeon. Dinner outside on the patio was delightful, and we celebrated the arrival of our delayed group member Nancy – now our flock was complete.

Fri., Feb. 16 Blue Mountains / Woodside / Hardwar Gap
We got an early start, again traversing the winding mountain roads for about an hour before reaching a vista point of Kingston Harbor at the Jamaican Military Camp, long ago placed high in the hills to help troops keep clear of Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases. It was a stunning morning, with views so clear that we could see planes taxiing in on the airport runway and ships in the harbor. Greater Antillean Grackle gave us a close inspection, while Loggerhead Kingbird and Sad Flycatcher investigated insects resting near a light post. On to our trail at Woodside, where the Crested Quail Dove remained elusive (we had only quick glimpses of one bird crossing the main road) but others gave us a good show. Highlights of the morning were Jamaican Elaenia, Jamaican Tody, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Jamaican Pewee and Stripe-headed Tanager. The flowers were lovely, and atop Hardwar Gap Zebra butterflies enjoyed the sun. Birding was quiet at the gap, mainly warblers and Jamaican Euphonia, but, as Julie commented, it was wonderful just to take in the lush greenery and the beauty of the gardens with their mix of native and exotic vegetation. It seems that anything will grow exuberantly here; we found a wild mix of azaleas, tree ferns and garden flowers gone wild. As we drove to a part of the Gap with a 60 year old Mahoe tree plantation, David spotted a Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo at very close range – wow! It was very tame, and stayed perched for all to get a clear view. We also found several “Hopping Dicks” (White-chinned Thrush) and some additional warblers before returning to the Gap (a natural pass in the Blue Mountains) for a delightful lunch of pumpkin soup and sandwiches. Peg gave us an overview of the geology of Jamaica, while Red-billed Streamertail entertained us at the feeders. En route home we checked out the local art and ‘tings’ and finally enjoyed a real cup of Blue Mountain coffee, with sweets -- yum! At dusk we ventured out to try for a glimpse of the Jamaican Owl, which John had heard by the gate early in the morning. Unfortunately, it remained hidden and quiet throughout our quest. At dinner, we celebrated Judy’s birthday with cake and champagne presented by the lodge.

Sat. Feb. 17 Forres Park / Kingston / Castledon Gardens / Tamarind Hill
This morning several of our group opted to awaken leisurely; others were eager to try for Jamaican Owl at dawn, and to walk the grounds of Forres Park. We heard the owl a few times very early, but it became quiet at its roosting hour and remained for us a mystery. Other birds were much more cooperative; the Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Pewee, Ovenbird (a new warbler for our list), and Jamaican Woodpecker were highlights.

After eating breakfast and packing, our driver, Neville, navigated the narrow driveway and we drove down the mountain back to Kingston, where a local guide, Juliet, joined us on the bus for a tour of the city. It was a beautiful day, sunny with a cool breeze, with white puffy clouds providing a backdrop for the cityscape against the rise of the Blue Mountains. We drove past historic buildings and watched the frenzy of building activity around the stadium where in a few weeks Jamaica will host the World Cup Cricket Games. We also visited the traveling Earthquake exhibit at the Institute of Jamaica and eventually parked down by the waterfront. Here, atop old dock pilings, we found hundreds of Laughing Gull and Royal Terns, with a few smaller Sandwich Terns and comical Brown Pelicans mixed in. We spent an hour in the very impressive Jamaican Art Museum, where centuries of art are displayed by period in an intriguing maze of intimate spaces. We stretched our legs at Emancipation Park in New Kingston where flags displayed quotes from leaders of freedom, and plantings and sculptures were designed to engender hope.

Soon it was time to join John Fletcher, our birding guide, and to continue on to the north side of the mountain. Mid-afternoon and midway across the island, we stopped at Castledon Gardens; as it was Sunday we found locals enjoying the fine sunny day by swimming, cooking soups and jerk pork alongside the road, or just strolling by in brightly colored garb. Our mission was to find a small flock of Jamaican Crows that began to use this park after the 1988 hurricane; the once-small flock now numbering over twenty. We got a nice walk in as they were quite elusive; in the upper, more open garden we had grand scope views of an Olive-throated Parakeet perched up on one of the trees. Finally, back down by the bus, Peg heard the crow’s nasal call; we quickly crossed the road and were able to find them feeding in a huge, bromeliad-clad tree. Then it was time to board the bus and head for our delightful lodgings at the Tamarind Hill Great House. Here we enjoyed dinner served on the verandah, and the story of how hosts Barry and Jill rebuilt this small hotel from abandoned ruins – obviously with skill and love!

Sun. Feb. 18 Tamarind Hill / Sun Valley Plantation / Rain and Two Desserts
We woke to a clear day, and began birding from the verandah, morning coffee in hand. The Loggerhead Kingbird called from the wire and a Stripe-headed Tanager came in for close inspection. Everyone got views of the Jamaican Oriole below us; above us soared their resident Red-tailed Hawk accompanied by Caribbean Martin. Tamarind Hill is located in the midst of large, mixed-crop plantations, with citrus, bananas and coconuts blending into native plantation a mile or so above the lodge. We walked a limestone road beneath flowering trees, past a few grazing cattle and their attendant cattle egrets. A pair, and then a small group, of Green-rumped Parrotlets passed by overhead as did two Olive-throated Parakeet. We had good looks at Smooth-billed Ani, and were surprised as a Belted Kingfisher flew through our view. John told us about many of the agricultural plants and we stopped to rest by a picturesque stream, where an outrageous purple and green flower (called a Duppy Basket) fascinated us. On the way back to our lodgings David and Judy spotted a pair of Jamaican Todies, which posed quite nicely – what a great little bird! Hungry after our early start, we returned for a full Jamaican breakfast.

After packing up we headed east across the North Coast road, a slow process as it is under construction. During the drive we enjoyed views of the turquoise and royal blue water, today topped with white-caps, as well as seeing the small towns, and hearing John’s descriptions of the growth of Rastafarian culture and other aspects of Jamaican life. We picked up sightings of several herons from a bridge over the Wagwater River, and saw a Magnificent Frigatebird soaring over the sea when we arrived at the Sun Valley Plantation’s porch. We enjoyed a great lunch of homemade pizza and the freshest of salads, followed by a dessert Beth described as possibly the best she’s ever eaten – light and lovely orange crepes with fresh cream. As we adjourned, Barbara and Shireen, our hosts, announced a celebration of Peg’s birthday at tea, with cakes and all! After four days of fantastic weather, a cold front had blown in, and winds and rain made us tuck in for a few hours of well-deserved rest this afternoon. Perhaps our two desserts also fueled the contentment of a nap!

Dinner at Mockingbird Hill is a gracious affair, with choices of starter, main course and dessert all carefully written on a blackboard – almost too scrumptious to choose between. Tonight they took our order and retreated as a local band arrived – what fun to hear the local music and to watch them play.

Monday, Feb. 19 John Crow Mountains Birding / Long Bay
This morning we met Ryan Love, an expert birding guide, to walk in the lush (well-watered!) John Crow Mountains. We walked on limestone soil along a quiet winding road; the vegetation pattern was complex, with many layers, including an impressive canopy. Despite intermittent rain through much of the morning, the birds were active, calling and busy. We heard myriad calls of Jamaican Vireo and finally got good views of a pair feeding at close range. This little songster has many variations to its song; even Ryan laughed and said if we heard something we didn’t know it was likely Jamaican Vireo! One of the first birds seen well was Jamaican Blackbird; it remained in our view on and off for half an hour, feeding on bromeliad-clad limbs of the larger trees. We delayed setting up our picnic breakfast for quite a long time to wait by the nest of a pair of Jamaican Becard. Just as we finally started, we heard its high whistle call, and eventually had this black male framed well in our spotting scopes. Greater Antillean Bullfinch proved a bit more difficult to frame, though we did spot both immature and mature individuals feeding in fruits of the canopy. They were upstaged by the noisy fly-in of two species of parrots; we were able to get both Black-billed and Yellow-billed in our scopes to make a comparison. Ryan talked about the changes in distribution of these two species after Hurricane Ivan, and how Black-billed Parrots became suddenly more numerous in the eastern John Crow Mountains. It was a good morning, which passed quickly, as we kept seeing great birds. Even the secretive Jamaican Crow put on a good show, feeding by stripping bark off palms, ripping threads aside to search for insects. Ruddy Quail Dove flew by on two occasions, their color matching that of the vibrant tail of Jamaica’s largest Myarchis flycatcher, the Ruddy-tailed. We had great looks at this bird – particularly on the third occasion where it perched boldly out in the open, causing Beth to exclaim, “Now, it’s finally acting like a flycatcher…”. We had a super view of a Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo (this time with full tail regalia displayed), but were not so lucky finding its larger cousin, the Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo.

After a satisfying morning, we ate at Yahimba, a little restaurant and beach bar at gorgeous Long Bay. Here the surf was wildly high; too much for our intended time to sun and swim! Instead we enjoyed fresh fish and barbecued chicken, and afterwards stopped at one more birding spot, leaving time to relax at lovely Mockingbird Hill.

Tuesday, Feb. 20 Morning at Mockingbird Hill / Rafting the Rio Grande River
Many of our group today joined Peg by 7:00 to explore the wooded roads surrounding Mockingbird Hill. The strong overnight wind had calmed by dawn, with some patches of blue breaking through the clouds. At the gate we encountered a group of migrant warblers, getting great looks at American Redstart, Black-throated Blue Warbler and Common Yellowthroat. A pair of Jamaican Woodpeckers called and perched boldly on palm trunks – great for scope viewing and still Nancy’s favorite. Overhead a large flock of ‘Rainbird’ (White-collared Swifts) swept by against billowing clouds – quite dramatic! David found a Yellow-faced Grassquit singing, and we spotted the Jamaican Oriole and Jamaican Euphonia working over a flowering Cecropia tree. We repeatedly tried our hand with technology trying to tape in the Arrowheaded Warbler, to no avail. But nature assuaged us as a Lizard Cuckoo surprised us on the driveway, and a skulker turned out to be a Worm-eating Warbler – a very pleasant morning. We enjoyed a lovely and leisurely breakfast on the porch of Mockingbird Hill, which feels a bit like a spacious tree house set in the forest. Then Wayne, our driver and the owner of Attractions Link, picked us up to take us to the start of raft a trip on the Rio Grande River. Despite some intermittent rain, the cloud cover kept us cool, and we had a delightful three hours following this beautiful river to its mouth at the sea. Two by two, seated on cushions in bamboo boats once designed to haul bananas, our captains navigated some tricky tight sections with riffles that occur on the river in the dry season. Mostly we floated serenely along, enjoying the scenery, lush vegetation, interesting geology, and of course some great birds -- mainly herons. Our evening list made an almost clean sweep of Jamaica’s herons – Little Blue, Great Blue, Snowy, Cattle, Great, Green and finally Black-crowned Night-Heron. We also picked up a few shorebirds for our list – a flock of about ten Lesser Yellowlegs fed on a rocky sandbar, and near the ocean a small gang of Ruddy Turnstone crossed before us. A few Belted Kingfisher flew upriver, and two Spotted Sandpipers caught our eye; all in all a good day in the birding realm.

In addition to the natural beauty we enjoyed lunch at Miss Betty’s, now run by her daughter, Belinda. On a rocky beach, this backcountry chef prepared us the most delicious meal of jerk chicken, vegetables, rice and peas and plantains. Dessert was cookies made with freshly grated coconut and ginger – wow! There was even time to shop with abandon for native carvings, fabric dolls and musical instruments! When we returned mid-afternoon, it was clear enough for several to relax by the pool. Our intrepid birders returned to the road by 4:30 pm, and were lavishly rewarded by grand sightings of a pair of Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo. Hotel Mockingbird Hill’s staff outdid themselves with a choice of five entrees, followed by scrumptious desserts (even chocolate for Nancy).

Wed., Feb. 21 Ecclesdown Road / Sunshine and Pool Time
We woke to puffy clouds and the promise of full sun, and left for Ecclesdown Road. We were on a mission to see some of the endemic species we had missed; successful with one (the Arrowhead Warbler) but, despite hearing them all around, unsuccessful with the other (Crested Quail Dove). Regardless, it was a beautiful morning to gaze at the extensive wooded mountains and photograph the vistas. We watched a large flock of Black-billed Parrot, a pair of Jamaican Becard, several White-necked Thrush, and a comical trio of Jamaican Crow. The small Vervain hummingbird came in on some Lantana by our breakfast stop. Overall it was much quieter on this fine sunlit day than on our day of mist and rain – we were happy to head back to Mockingbird satisfied with our sightings for the week, and anxious for a bit of time to relax. Wayne showed us the film site for Blue Lagoon, and Boston Bay, where jerk cooking evolved.

Once back at the hotel, fortified by yet another delicious meal, Linda was the first in the pool; a few others followed – even our ardent birder Judy! Shireen led a garden tour of the property. It was fascinating to hear both her creative tips and some of the challenges they faced. The garden at Mockingbird Hill is a delight; a free garden that blends chosen color and pattern with and between the wild plants. Set against the beauty of the Blue Mountains, with little paths beckoning us to intimate places, this garden provides an inspiring retreat. Meanwhile, Ryan led some of our birders on a loop walk, down the road where they once again enjoyed views of the fabulous Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo. Our final dinner was again divine; no losing weight here!

Thurs., Feb. 22 Jamaica’s East Coast / Travel Day / St. Lucia
We left in two shifts today, so that those with later flights did not have to brave the early hour. Air Jamaica had cancelled our 11:20 flight and moved us to 9:30. Mockingbird Hill’s staff kindly packed us a picnic breakfast and coffee, which we enjoyed by a lovely beach on the East Coast. Better yet, a group of shorebirds also enjoyed that beach, so we added four new species to our list! Watching sunrise over the ocean is always a pleasure; following slow gravel trucks while trying to get to the airport is not! Wayne did a marvelous job, our check-in was easy, and we were happy to see Julie find her coveted Jamaican Bobsled Team T-shirt at the airport.

Seven of our group continued on to St. Lucia, landing about 4:30. Even from the plane the beauty of this tiny island was immediately apparent. St. Lucia is green (still some 40% forested) and complex in its topography. Its famous geographic feature, the Pitons, have recently been declared a World Heritage Site. We watched a beautiful show of light over these dramatic peaks and the ocean as we followed a winding road north around the island to our lodgings above the charming town of Soufriere. Ed and Beth scored a room with a fabulous view from the porch, so several of us gathered for fresh juice and rum concoctions. It was, after all, St. Lucia’s Independence Day – 28 years since their 1979 split from England. We marveled at the prosperity of St. Lucia, which is still a part of the Commonwealth. In the next few days we would marvel further at its friendly people, amazing scenery and generally relaxed, yet somehow orderly, way of life. Tonight we enjoyed another good meal at Le Haut’s outdoor dining area, with a view of the village lights below as well as moonlit views of the outline of the Pitons.

Thurs., Feb. 22 - Sun., Feb. 25 - St. Lucia Extension
What an enjoyable addition to our Jamaica trip! St. Lucia is in the center of the Lesser Antilles, so with several regional and island endemics we had plenty to see on our bird walks, with time to enjoy our nice accommodations and, for some, beach time and snorkeling as well.

Our first outing was to Millard Forest, with local guide Aloysius Charles of the Forestry Department. He arranged transport for us, which actually arrived early, so we were on site at a good hour to see the activity of St. Lucia Parrot. What a thrill! We heard, then saw, several birds overhead, plunging off of their cliff-side roosts to soar over a broad valley, then up to the next ridgeline. After several flight shows, Julie said, “Okay, now I want them perched, in the sun, to show off those colors!” As if on command, Ed found first one, then six in a group on the far ridge. Through the scope we could see every detail, and watched some fascinating behavior as they seemed to just play – moving from perch to perch, hovering, changing positions, squawking and flying without real intent to yet another perch. The smaller birds simply had to wait for our attention, but we could not ignore seeing all three species of hummingbird together – the Crested, Purple-throated Carib, and Green-throated Carib all coming in for inspection. We had great looks at St. Lucia Oriole, and St. Lucia Pewee as well. St. Lucia Warbler was quite tame, and we were able to photograph as well as observe this species. On another trail, close to the Forestry Department office, we enjoyed very close observation of Lesser Antillean Bullfinch and St. Lucia Black Finch. Coconuts were halved and presented as feeders along the trails; these acted like little magnets to draw in clusters of birds. The hummingbirds also had an area they clustered in; we watched over a dozen Purple-throated Carib and their antics. Another St. Lucia Oriole came into a Coconut tree, providing great looks, so it was a most successful morning.

We then headed to a relaxing lunch on the water at Marigot Bay, a small busy cove with lots sailboats and yachts coming and going. Several of the staff from the Forestry tours department and our drivers joined us; it was festive and fun to learn more about the island, its economy and geography. Half the group returned to the hotel, stopping at scenic viewpoints en route, and learning more about the small communities of the West side of the island. Peg, David and Judy wanted to try to see the rare, possibly endangered, White-breasted Mockingbird, a bird likely to be split soon from its nearest and only relative on Martinique. This involved driving across the island to Dennery, and walking through the dry forest on that side of the island. We met another local guide there, Stephen Lesmond, who has studied this bird for eleven years. He took us to two active areas, with David only getting a glimpse at the first. Worried that it was too late in the day, we drew upon patience and our attention prevailed; at a third site we got two good views. The birds have a striking pattern of dark above, light below – success is always grand in one of these more targeted outings! As we were located near the center of the island, we opted to return via its southern tip, past the airport, enjoying the grand scenery and sunset over the Pitons.

The next day half our group opted to go snorkeling and to enjoy the beach at nearby Anse Chastenet resort – they had a lovely day in the sun, and a delicious lunch at the beachside restaurant. Peg, David and Judy continued to search for Lesser Antillean endemic birds; this time in the Edmund Forest near Soufriere. Right at the start David spotted a Gray Trembler; a new bird family for the three of us and a great find. This bird turned out to be quite common at our hotel as well; we were lucky to get photographs and to watch its odd trembling behavior – this bird shakes its wings, tail and body steadily as it calls. It was a very quiet morning in the woods, as can happen in days of birding. We worked hard for views of Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, which again made an appearance in the garden of our hotel upon our return. We were able to catch views of gorgeous St. Lucia Parrots at much closer range, and found a flock of birds that contained Pearly-eyed as well as Scaly-breasted Thrasher. Peg found three Antillean Euphonias, but they stayed high in the canopy, affording us good looks only at the female.

The morning passed quickly; we found the endemic oriole and warbler once more, and returned to spend some time at our lovely lodgings at Le Haut Plantation cottages. The birds were plentiful there; the scenery divine, and Beth, Peg and Julie discovered the infinity pool. They enjoyed a blissful hour of swimming, with the Pitons and other rugged hills as well as an expanse of ocean all in view. Broad-winged Hawks called and soared overhead; this was the way to bird!

We returned to Anse Chastenet for drinks and sunset. David and Judy found the trip’s magic tree. While the rest of us were quaffing rum drinks at the beach, they watched dozens of Antillean Crested and Green-throated Carib hummingbirds feeding on a blooming Ceiba! That and close views of Black-whiskered Vireo were a treat for all as we reconvened. The resort was loud and busy; we longed for the tranquility of Le Haut, and decided to return there for dinner. Perhaps it was Peg’s description of the lime and ginger sauce on her fresh fish the previous night. In any event St. Lucia won great reviews by all, and in just a short trip we did very well on our birding. To combine that with some great relaxation and with the inspiration of fine scenery and hospitality – we wouldn’t be surprised if several return to this splendid green isle!

Thanks to participant David Smith for great photos of Yellow-billed Parrot (Feb.15), and Olive-throated Parakeet (Feb. 22). Other photos by Peg Abbott.

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