March 19 - 26, 2005

Narrative by Martin Selzer and photos by Lynn Jackson

Many thanks go out to our V.E.N.T. leaders Victor Emanuel and Barry Lyon and a special thanks to our local expert Brandon Hay and our hosts at Marshall's Pen, Ann Sutton and the lovely Miss Coco Sutton .

Miss Coco Sutton greets her guests

Bird List


Photo Album

The famous "Doctorbird" of Jamaica

March 19

Spring break at the Philadelphia International Airport was about as close to a madhouse as an airport can get. The Caribbean is high on people from the Northeast’s list of places to go. After waiting in the E-ticket line and security we had time to kill at the gate. This also allowed us plenty of opportunity to wonder if the pile of luggage behind the counter was ever going to make if through screening and onto the correct planes in time.

Our plane was late arriving from Ft. Lauderdale so we ultimately took off about 50 minutes late. The customs line in Montego Bay was slow so by the time we got to the luggage carousel most of the bags had been offloaded. Needless to say our bags were among the dozen or more that did not appear. After filing our claim with the keeper of the lost luggage we found our ride to the hotel (they,of course, had started to page us as we were almost 90 minutes late at this point) and we arrived at the Sunset Beach Resort and Hotel around 5PM.

After settling into the room and a quick visit to the hotel gift shop for a shirt, sunscreen and toothbrush in case the bags didn’t arrive, we birded from the balcony. Greater Antillean Grackle, Mourning Dove, Royal Tern, Northern Mockingbird, Common Ground-Dove, Magnificent Frigatebird, American Kestrel, Brown Pelican and, at about 5:30, a Barn Owl flew over the tennis courts and across our field of view. The owl was being chased by a Loggerhead Kingbird (probably, Loggerhead as we really were focusing on the owl). It was then time to check out the beach, sunset and have dinner. Dinner was at buffet at the Banana Hut Restaurant in the resort and it was very good.

March 20

Since the luggage didn’t arrive, we left a wake-up call with the front desk and set the alarm clock on my cell phone. We got up in plenty of time and took a quick walk on the hotel grounds before meeting the group at 6:30 in the lobby. On the walk, we had lots of grackles, Loggerhead Kingbirds, Northern Mockingbirds and the first Northern Parula of the trip.

While going through introductions and some preliminary trip details we had coffee and tea before hitting the breakfast buffet at the Banana Hut. We departed for the Rockland’s Bird Sanctuary at 8:15 and were there in about 20 minutes. This is a wonderful private garden where we immediately started seeing endemics. We started with a Jamaican Oriole soon followed by a Red-billed Streamertail and Jamaican Mango. These are three strikingly beautiful birds and all were buzzing by our heads.

We settled onto the veranda and waited for the hummers to come to the sugar water bottles some of us held. While we waiting Jamaican Woodpeckers, Bananaquits and Orangequits fed at the orange slices set out for them. We also had Black-faced and Yellow-faced Grassquits feeding in the vegetation, a Sad Flycatcher building a nest overhead and a Caribbean Dove feeding on the ground with an Ovenbird. After about an hour of sitting and waiting for the birds to come to us, we moved about the garden. The group had a Jamaican Elaenia and some of us got looks at a Greater Antillean Bullfinch and a Jamaican Tody. Besides being a beautiful bird the emerald green tody can only be described as cute as the dickens! We finally left Rocklands around 10:30 and drove more or less straight through to Mandeville and Marshall’s Pen where we would be staying the next three nights.

Butterflies seen at Rocklands included: Common Mestra, Zebra Longwings, Julia, Jamaican Satyr and Common Tailed skipper

Red-billed Streamertail being hand fed on the veranda at Rocklands

On the way, we made one birding stop at the “Fonthill Pond” . The pond was loaded with Common Moorhens (more than any of us could remember seeing in one spot), Northern Jacanas, Blue-winged Teal, Least and Pied-billed Grebes and 20-25 Masked Ducks. Victor and Barry were both amazed and excited about the ducks as they had never seen that many in their lives. In fact, it was only the second time Barry had ever seen them and that time it was only a handful. There were also a Sora, 1-2 Common Coots, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers feeding at the margins of the pond. This was a great spot and except for being on a rather busy road a wonderful birding stop. Before leaving we also had good looks at a Gulf Fritillary.

We arrived at Marshall’s Pen at 13:00 and headed straight into lunch. The food at Marshall’s Pen was simple but delicious and plentiful. From 14:00-15:30, we were given time to settle into our rooms. Since there was no word on our luggage, this was a much simpler task for us. I tried to contact the USAir Customer Service person and got nowhere really fast so I took a walk around the gardens and enjoyed more Red-billed Streamertails and Jamaican Mangos coming to the feeders.

I also picked up Jamaican Vireo and, thanks to one of the guys who worked at Marshall’s Pen, two Jamaican Owls that were perched at the near end of the driveway. At least one of these two owls were perched there throughout our entire stay.

At 15:30, the group met for tea and I went on hold with USAir again. After another 45 minutes of frustration, I caught up with the group. By now, Ann Sutton had sent an e-mail to USAir and Victor had contacted the office to start working on this on Monday.

a really bad picture of the Jamaican Owls

Along the trails we found some nice butterflies including: Tropical Checkered-Skippers, lots of Julias, Mestras, Cloudless Sulphurs and Caraunus Blues.

The group did have our first White-chinned Thrush, Zenaida Dove and some Yankee migrant warblers before it really got quiet. Around 17:30 Victor, Barry and about half of the group headed back to the garden and main house. The “slackers” as we were to be known, stayed back with Brandon as we started finding birds, and good ones at that! It all started with a Greater Antillean Bullfinch (a good plumaged male), a Rufous-tailed Flycatcher and several Jamaican Spindalis. Time and time again as we would see these birds throughout the trip, they would cause Barry to marvel at their striking appearance and he was right even if we did tease him about this. We also had a young male Jamaican Becard who was partially molted into his jet-black adult plumage. Our finding of a Jamaican Pewee and, ultimately, a Jamaican Lizard-cuckoo quickly followed finding the becard.

Now, the lizard-cuckoo is a cool bird that was determined to guard its territory. It repeatedly flew over our heads calling and grunting to drive us away. Brandon swore us to secrecy as we had seen too many endemics without the rest of the group. But birders being birders, we of course told everyone what we had found. Except for the pewee, we found everything again rather easily. There was still no word on the luggage but it had been a great day birding and we enjoyed some fine Jamaican rum before a wonderful roast chicken dinner.

Entrance to main courtyard at Marshall's Pen

March 21

We met outside the main house’s main entrance at 6:00 for a pre-breakfast walk for quail-doves. We dipped out on the quail-doves but did find Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Vireo, Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Crow, Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Jamaican Spindalis and Jamaican Euphonia. We also had Prairie and Black and White Warblers, and Loggerhead Kingbirds. It was just a wonderful 90-minute walk before breakfast. After a “quick” complete breakfast, Ron found an Arrow-headed Warbler in the garden while folks were futzing around. Unfortunately, some folks were back at their rooms and missed out on our first Arrow-head.

We then headed out on a different path and stumbled onto both White-chinned and White-eyed Thrushes in a fruiting fig tree. There were more spindalis and other Jamaican endemics that were quickly becoming familiar to us already. While watching the fruiting fig tree, Ron spotted a Yellow-shouldered Grassquit. Yet another, endemic to get checked off the list and this is another spiffy bird. While it was a challenge, everyone eventually got scope views of this bird. It was then back to the main house for lunch from 12:30-13:30 where a lovely Antillean Malachite butterfly drifted through the patio garden. After lunch we head off o the coast and Treasure Beach before a late afternoon visit back to the Fonthill Pond.

The Treasure Beach area has several ponds that can be good for waders if the water levels are good. The first two ponds we stopped at were not very productive but the third pond was rather productive with Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe. We also had a “Study in Yellow” as Victor liked to call the next series of birds we saw in the same clump of vegetation. We had 30+ Saffron inches in various plumages including one brilliant male, Yellow-faced Grassquits, a CMF of a Cape May Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat and Yellow-rumped Warbler. It was quite a sight especially the Cape May Warbler. In the middle of all this “yellow”, a Gray Kingbird hawked insects from the tallest perches.

Male Saffron finch on right with females

The last stop was at a lagoon near Parottee Point. The lagoon held just about all the long-legged waders (Great Blue, Tri-colored and Little Blue Heron; Great, Snowy and Red and White morph Reddish Egrets); Sandwich, Royal and Caspian Terns and Laughing Gulls. To everyone’s surprise except Brandon, there was also a Greater Flamingo. It showed up after Hurricane Ivan and had been hanging out in this lagoon since then but was not 100% reliable so Brandon chose not to say anything before hand. While enjoying the flamingo, all the roosting terns took to the air and sure enough a Peregrine Falcon was seen streaking through them.

From here we worked our way back to the Fonthill Pond where we had more of the same from our previous visit but not much new except for the most distant and fleeting glimpses of Yellow-breasted Crake. Not at all satisfactory for me but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Still it had been another great day of birding. We arrived back at Marshall’s Pen around 19:30 and as I dropped my stuff off in my room the phone rang and I heard my name. The luggage had finally arrived in Jamaica and after going to Negril with some other lost luggage it would be delivered to Marshall’s Pen. It finally arrived at 01:00 on Tuesday and the barking of dogs and headlights up the driveway heralded its arrival. As they say, better late than never!

March 22

Today’s agenda was a morning visit to Cockpit Country , a return to Marshall’s Pen for lunch and then a late afternoon visit to the wetlands of the Upper Black River Morass.

Alarms went off at 4:30 and given that the luggage had arrived only a short time earlier it was a short night for many of us. Added to the fun was the fact that at least half the group had encountered the “chiggers” or seed ticks and had lots of itchy bites keeping them awake. Anyway, we arrived in Cockpit Country at the spot Brandon calls “the International Birders Breakfast Spot” around 6:15, got out our picnic breakfast and waited for the pigeons and parrots to fly by.

Almost immediately a Ring-tailed Pigeon flew high overhead and, while it made the checklist, no one was happy with that view. We then starting picking up our old friends, Loggerhead Kingbirds, Bananaquits, Orangequits, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher and distant Stolid Flycatchers. Soon a Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo was heard and seen high up on the hillside. It was backlit but flew in across the valley in response to our tape. Here much lower and in wonderful light, it joined its mate. Wow, this is another “horse of a bird” as we discussed later when we did the checklist. We also had both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Parrots coming up the valley in perfect light to show off the rosy-throat and light colored head of the Yellow-billed Parrots and the all dark body and shiny black base of the bill of the Black-billed Parrots. With a little bit of effort we had quick, perched views of both species too.

A walk along the road yielded Blue Mountain Vireo and more of the birds we had been seeing since arriving. Levy followed us with the bus and we had a brief snack at 10:00. We let him go ahead to turn the bus around and made a brief return stop at the International Birders Breakfast Spot before heading back to Marshall’s Pen at 10:30. These parrots were the main targets for this morning so getting them as well as we did along with the cuckoo and vireo was quite a great start to the day.

Cockpit Country was dry and windy so we had very few butterflies but a new species for the trip was a bug that Heineman calls a Vesuria skipper but which is now considered a sub-species of the Southern Broken-Dash. That,and a few Julias, Zebras and Satyrs, marked the butterfly list for this morning.

We made a quick stop for Grasshopper Sparrow outside of Mandeville. This was made challenging because of the strong wind blowing and smoke from a rather large, near-by brush fire. We had one sparrow pop up and take to the wing but it was hardly what one would call a quality look. After lunch and some down time at Marshall’s Pen (which I used to start this journal finally) we were off to the Upper Black River Morass a little after 15:00.

Marsh at the Upper Black River Morass

It took almost 75 minutes to get to the fish farm (tilapia) that marked the beginning of the morass. There were lots of herons and egrets foraging at the hatchery and when we got to the actual morass, we had our first West Indian Whistling-ducks (50-75 individuals). There were also quite a few Smooth-billed Ani in the area too. We continued to a more open area where there were even more West Indian Whistling-ducks (a total of maybe 200 where in this area) and a Fulvous Whistling-duck was mixed in with the second group. What a wonderful sight. The West Indian Whistling-duck is one of the most endangered species of waterfowl in the world thanks to its limited distribution and in just a few minutes I saw more of them then their more common cousins the Fulvous Whistling-duck. Although I have seen Fulvous Whistling-duck several times it was only one or two each time and it is a very rare visitor to Jamaica.

In this section of the marsh we had more Blue-winged Teal, Common Moorhen, three Purple Gallinule (two adults and one juvenile), two Least Bitterns, Sora, Least Sandpiper and Barn and Rough-winged Swallows. It was a great spot but it was approaching 18:30 and time to head back to Marshall’s Pen for dinner. On the drive out of the morass area, we had two Black-crowned Night-herons leaving their daytime roosts.

This trip to Jamaica is based on birding some very key areas for some very specific target species and filling in the time between. Since Hurricane Ivan, Jamaica had been experiencing a very dry spell that has resulted in lots of brush fires in the countryside and low water levels in the wetlands. All in all, Barry summed it up when he said; “there are a whole lot of worse things you could be doing than birding in Jamaica”.

March 23

At 6:00 a few of us went on a quail-dove hunt and we ended up going one for two with Ruddy Quail-dove but not the Jamaican endemic Crested Quail-dove. While some of the early birds went back to the main house for a cup of coffee, Lynn, Ron, Ken and I went on the “other” quail-dove trail. We did have nice looks at the juvenile Ruddy Quail-dove that had been feeding on the orange halves left for it and a cooperative Caribbean Dove but no Crested Quail-dove.

Historis acheronta cadmus

Breakfast was at 8:00 and then we wandered around Marshall’s Pen from 9-11 trying to clean up on whatever we had missed. While walking along the trail a large butterfly flew in and alighted on a tree. Fortunately, it allowed us to approach while it fed on tree sap and revealed the stunning underwing of the Cadmus butterfly.

We stayed with the group initially and added a Worm-eating Warbler to the trip list before heading off on our own back to the quail-dove trail. We had the juvenile bird again and a crisp, bright Prairie Warbler (yet another of those “yellow” birds) before heading off to the main meadow for some butterflying.

Of course, you always find the "best" spot just as you're leaving and the meadow proved to be amazing. Tropical Fritillaries, Jamaican White Peacocks, a female Dynamine (Sailor), West Indian Buckeye, Andraemon and Thersite Swallowtails plus lots of the usuals (Mestras, Julias, Sulphurs, Antillean Whites ...) Photography was virtually impossible because of the winds but it was sheer numbers of butterflies was awesome.

Jamaican White Peacock

Ceraunus Blue

Tropical Fritillary

Tropical Checkered-Skipper

Lunch was at noon and at 12:45 we soon departed Marshall’s Pen for Kingston with a stop at Portland Bight for Bahama Mockingbird.

En route, Brandon told us more about local culture. He had told us about the "maroons" and Cockpit Country on the ride that morning and today his insights were not quite as profound. As you drive around the country, you see a lot of small roadside drinking establishments. Many not more that the size of a garden shed back home. Brandon’s first observations was to acknowledge their number, his second comment was how they constantly change their names to remain trendy. In the 70’s they were “Pubs”, in the 80’s they were “Drinking Saloons” and now they all are “Sports Bars” even though their owners have no clue what a sports bar actually is. He also said that while they need a license to sell liquor, there is a loop-hole in the law that states that as long as you post a sign indicating your intent to apply for the license you may legally sell liquor. Needless to say, we saw lots of these signs.

The ride to Portland Ridge and the Portland Bight was a bit slower than advertised but that was okay. There was a stop at a local pharmacy for some anti-itch cream. Somehow I missed getting eaten alive but judging from how much scratching was going on by some trip participants, I was happy to have missed out on this fun. Then there was a pit stop at Brandon’s office in Lionel Town.

Portland Bight is a mangrove, wetlands that was hit with a 3 to 4 meter storm surge when Hurricane Ivan hit the island. The devastation in this area was pretty evident and dramatic. This is a very poor area of the island so we would not have heard about it at home but of the 15 or so people who lost their lives in Jamaica due to Ivan, half lived in this area.

We had to “battle” ongoing road construction and construction vehicles but we managed to get close-up looks at both Bahama Mockingbird and Stolid Flycatchers. From here we headed straight to the Courtleigh Hotel in Kingston where we checked in, pre-ordered dinner and met at 18:30. Ann Sutton joined us as she was in town for meetings and told us more about her conservation work in Jamaica.

The view from our room at the Courtleigh Hotel

March 24

We made a 5:00 departure for Hardware Gap in the Port Royal Mountains of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. At approximately 6:00 we arrived at a pull-off where Barry and Victor set up our picnic breakfast. Rufous-throated Solitaires were calling all around us but none could be seen from this roadside stop. After eating, I wandered up the road and had Bananaquits, Orangequits, Red-billed Streamertails, White-chinned Thrush and a female Arrow-headed Warbler.

We started down the quail-dove trail but we were probably a little late for the doves to still be by the roadside. We did have Rufous-throated Solitaire, however. We started walking back up the road and I do mean up, as this was a steep, steep road when we heard a Crested Quail-dove calling just below us near a thick stand of bamboo. Unfortunately, several Arrow-headed Warblers that had become a major mission for Mike and, therefore the rest of the group, quickly distracted us. Finally he was able to see one but not before the quail-dove lost interest in the tape and disappeared. We continued back up the road and Claire spotted a wintering Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Near this spot we had a pair of Jamaican Becards building a nest. Back at the main road we continued to walk in hopes of Jamaican Blackbird. We had no luck with the blackbird but did have more Jamaican Spindalis and Yankee migrants (Common Yellowthroat, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Ovenbird and Black-throated Green Warbler). We made a pit and coffee stop at the Gap B&B for a well deserved 15 minutes off our feet.

Lunch was a roadside picnic and, while we kept trolling for the blackbird (still without any luck), we did stumble across 6-10 Ring-tailed Pigeons. They were perched in the roadside trees at eye-level and we got glimpses of them before all but one took to the wing. This did allow you to see their namesake field mark. The lone straggler did sit still so we could set a scope on it and get everyone to see it. In fact, we walked away from it.

View of the Blue Mts.

It was then back to the quail-dove road and, while we acknowledged it was a long shot trying this in the middle of the afternoon, we had nothing to lose and this is a great spot for them. Just a short way down the way, a quail-dove responded to Barry’s tape (yes he still uses a tape player). We tried to call it in but probably were not patient enough as it flushed before we could really see it. Victor had spied it but not soon enough. It was then back up to the bus and to the hotel. We did a double checklist at 17:30 and then headed in for dinner.

At dinner, Barry commented that because we were 1 for 3 on target birds for the day (Ring-tailed Pigeon. Yes; Crested Quail-dove and Jamaican Blackbird, no) it seemed like we had had a bad day but, in fact, we had 20 of the islands endemics in just one day. One for three may be good enough to get you into the baseball hall of fame but not the birding hall. Anyway, we had three endemics to go and the best chance for them was an early departure to the John Crow Mountains. Therefore we were told to be ready at 4:00, much to Laurie’s shock but being a trooper (this was her first time birding let alone being on a birding trip) she was there ready to go the next morning.

March 25

Throughout the trip, Barry had been commenting on the high quality of the habitat we were constantly visiting in the Cockpit Country, Portland Bight area or the Port Royal Mountains and he was absolutely correct. But as wonderful as the forests had been earlier in the trip, the forests of the John Crow Mountains were, hands down, the best habitat we were to visit on the entire tour. Sure there were some small banana and coconut groves but there was little evidence of invasive plants or slash and burning wed seen elsewhere.

We were on the Ecclesdown Road for only a short stretch when Brandon spotted a Crested Quail-dove in a tree. It was 6:45 and we had one of our three target birds within our reach. We let the bus drift backwards a bit and then quietly (or at least at quietly as 14 people can be) got out of the bus and began taping the birds in. There were several quail-doves in the area. We had two immediately below us, another bird rocketed down the hillside from above us and two flew up to near the road 20 yard behind us (more on these later). One of the birds settled down and Barry was able to get his scope on it. Because of the angle we needed to use one of the coolers as a stepstool.

The group slowly began to spread out and Brandon and Kay had walked back to where the two doves had come near the road. They didn’t wait long enough and headed back towards the bus as Lynn and I joined them. Shortly after they had reached the bus, one bird finally flushed down the hillside and the other to a perch less than 10 feet from where we were standing. Lynn and I looked at each other dumbfounded and just smiled! Everyone was still with the scoped bird including our driver, Levy, who Barry had woken up to see the reasons we had to leave at 4:00. Although he was not initially happy about this, Levy later said he was glad that Barry had done this. One down, two to go and it was time for breakfast or at least juice and coffee and most of us had already eaten the packed goodies from the Courtleigh on the drive.

We walked the road now in search of Black-billed Streamertail and Jamaican Blackbird. They remained elusive but we did have crippling views of Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Arrow-headed Warblers and Black-billed Parrots. We remained determined to cleanup on the endemics and heard streamertails although we could not really find them We eventually had a young male (no streamers), a female and a backlit male with streamers.

It was not even 9:30 and we had two of our three targets in the bag. Now all that remained was the blackbird that just happens to be the toughest endemic because of its preferred habitat, behavior and the simple fact that there are so few of them.

We just kept walking the road, playing the tape and listening when Brandon finally heard one. Now the challenge was to find it. Turns out, there was a pair feeding just below us on the hillside and we had gotten our 29th and final Jamaican endemic! We needed a big morning and the boys and birds came through. It was a little after 10:00 and all we had to do now was get to the “jerk centre” for lunch. The Port Antonio area is where the Jamaican Jerk style of cooking originated and we were going to an authentic roadside stand for a taste of real “jerk cooking”. First we stopped at the Mocking Bird Hill Hotel for a drink, pit stop and better view of Black-billed Streamertails feeding in the garden. Butterflies in the garden at Mockingbird Hill included: Jamaican Polydamas and Cassius Blue

Lunch was at the jerk centre where we got a couple pounds of jerk pork, jerk chicken and one jerk fish along with roasted yams, breadfruit and festival (a breadstick item). All were served family style wrapped in paper, placed on the table in front of you to be eaten with your hands, “el fresco”. It was a great meal and we also got to do a little shopping for bootleg CDs and jewelry. Our drive back along the coast to Kingston was rather uneventful except for White-tailed Tropicbird near the town of Hector River. A pair nests in the cliffs here.

We had our goodbye dinner, made arrangements with Levy for rides to the airport, said our good-byes and went our separate ways. What had started out a bit stressful thanks to spring break travel mayhem and USAir ended up as a wonderful birding trip.

March 25

Since we had an early afternoon flight from Kingston to Ft. Lauderdale we got to sleep in, enjoy the complimentary Continental breakfast and kill time before getting to the airport. Levy was waiting for us when we checked out and we headed for the airport. Nothing too extraordinary occurred on this leg of the trip except for getting bumped up to First Class for this flight. Anyway, we arrived more or less on time in Ft. Lauderdale, breezed through customs, entrusted our bags to a USAir truck at the curbside (yes I said curbside) and walked to the departure terminal.

Going through security the TSA agent stopped my bag, as he had never seen a pair of binoculars like mine on his screen. After having a pleasant discussion with him about them being 8.5 x 42s he passed the bag on through. From here it became clear that all was not, well again as lots of flights (most importantly, ours) were delayed. Eventually, the ground controllers realized that two planes could not simultaneously occupy the same gate and changed our gate location. Two hours late we departed Ft. Lauderdale, arrived safe and sound in Philadelphia (with our bags) and got home around midnight.

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