Bad birding goes to Jamaica

Has anyone wondered whether this blog is dead? It’s not! However, because of winter in Canada we did not see any new birds for months…that is, until a few weeks ago in Jamaica! In nine days, we saw 71 birds, 61 of which are new for us. What about the 28 endemics? We saw 17 of them, and they are listed at the end of this report.

In this somewhat lengthy post I will describe some facets of our Jamaican birding trip.

Some frequently asked questions

I feel I should get these out of the way considering how little information on Jamaica actually exists. These questions were often frequently asked on the internet but the answers did not come from birders or those going into places that people actually use for birding. So hopefully these answers add a new perspective.

Should I rent a car in Jamaica?

Yes, unless you plan on using a guide. That is because all the best birding locations are accessible only with a car. There is pretty much no public transportation, and hiring a taxi would be way too expensive. Some people complain on the internet about car rental companies in Jamaica, but we had an excellent experience with Enterprise for example without problems. (I am not affiliated with Enterprise.)

Driving outside the major cities in Jamaica in a regular two-wheel drive is easy, as long as you stick to the major roads. Even the smaller ones are often fine. We drove only along the northern highways. There are only a couple of things to keep in mind. First, in some places the road quality is poor such as the entire highway east of Port Antonio. It’s full of potholes, chickens, and goats. Just don’t run over them. Jamaicans also drive on the left. Don’t let that scare you.

Should I get Jamaican currency before coming into the country?

Yes, absolutely. You can get it exchanged at the Jamaican airport as well, but it might be stressful. Jamaican dollars are accepted everywhere, and most places in Jamaica only accept Jamaican dollars. You can get by on US dollars in resorts, but if that is all you are doing, you shouldn’t even be reading this blog.

In a USA Today article, it mentions that you can’t bring Jamaican currency into Jamaica. That makes no sense. That article is wrong. Get your facts from the Jamaican customs website, which makes no mention of currency.

Is Jamaica dangerous?

If you are birding, it shouldn’t be. We came back alive, right? There are some dangerous parts that are not recommended, though all of those are in big cities. All the small areas we visited were relatively safe. There were some pushy jerk chicken vendors and the police carry assault rifles. We were stopped at a checkpoint once, but they police were polite and let us through without any problems. Kingston is supposed to be a little scary, and if you are doing birding around there, hiring a guide might be worthwhile.

Okay, with those questions out of the way, let’s get talking about BIRDING!

Arrival: Montego Bay

To avoid driving long distances on the first day, we spent our first night at the all-inclusive Holiday Inn Resort about 9km east from the airport.

We got an ocean view and immediately started seeing birds. In fact, it was a great place to see Laughing Gull, which was the only time we saw it on our trip. We saw a few other birds around, like Royal Tern and Greater Antillean Grackle, one of the most common birds in Jamaica. I doubt you can come to Jamaica without seeing the Grackle:

One curious bird we saw here was House Sparrow. The field guide published in 2010 gives this distribution map:

and says this species is ‘Very Rare and Local’. That was nine years ago, so I suspect this species has increased its range due to more human activity.

The Holiday Inn itself was pretty good with all meals included. It has a guarded and gated parking lot, though honestly it would not be too hard to break into it. However, we left our rental car there (the only bright blue car in the lot) and it was safe the next day.

The drive to Great Huts

The next day we headed off to the Great Huts resort. In order to save money, our main two hotels (Great Huts and Green Castle) had kitchens and we planned on cooking our lunches and dinners. So, that meant we had to find a grocery store in Jamaica. My original idea was the Progressive Foods Supermarket back in the direction of the airport from the Holiday Inn, but thankfully I checked and it’s closed on Sundays. We made a new plan to just drive and stop at something that looked good. Luckily, in about an hour of driving east, we did find something: the LFA Country Store. This grocery store is in a nice, safe-looking area and the selection was pretty good. It included some fresh vegetables, pasta, bread, canned goods, etc. Since we weren’t sure how good our refrigerators would be, and we didn’t have a cooler, we bough mostly cans and a few fresh things including calallo, and stashed those with the cold water and ice we got from the Holiday Inn. If you are planning on touring Jamaica, I would recommend buying all the food you’ll need for the trip here or at the first decent place you find, so you don’t have to worry about stopping in another city for additional food (like we did).

As a bonus, we got excellent views of Cattle Egret in the field adjacent to the store.

Great Huts

We chose Great Huts because it is close to Ecclesdown road, a famous birding location in Jamaica. The first thing to say is that the rooms here are very close to a camping experience: the ground is basically sand and rocks, and it is completely open to the outside. It does have electricity, and although they didn’t recommend we drink the water here, they provide complimentary spring water that can be obtained in the welcome area. All of this was pretty acceptable to us since we are used to camping. In terms of the room itself, the most bothersome thing actually was that it was difficult to keep the mosquitoes away from us at night, as the mosquito net over the bed let some in despite our best efforts to close it securely.

We first saw the White-crowned Pigeon on the grounds of Great Huts

While I can see a lot of effort was put into making Great Huts a nice resort, there was something about this place that I strongly caution against: the noise.

There is constant annoying music playing in the afternoon that can be heard from the rooms, which is especially bad with the rooms closest to the main hut. The music lasts until nine or ten at night, which makes it difficult to go to sleep early or relax. What is worse is that on Sunday night, there is a massive beach party on the nearby public beach that plays even louder, even more annoying music until about 4AM. Even my favourite high-powered silicone earplugs could not completely drown out this noise. Other people on websites like TripAdvisor have also mentioned this. This is not really the fault of Great Huts, but it is something to think about.

So what would I recommend instead? We have heard many good things on other birding blogs about Hotel Mockingbird Hill. It is more expensive, but if we ever returned to this area I would not hesitate staying here instead.

Even this lizard didn’t like the noise!

Ecclesdown Road

Let’s get back to birds! Our Ecclesdown Road adventure was the first time I felt more relaxed on our trip, and I thought hey, maybe staying at Great Huts was actually worth it.

Ecclesdown Road was easy to find. It is a small road that leads into the John Crow mountains and provides a great view of the Jamaican rainforest. It is narrow and in most places cars cannot pass each other. Luckily, it is rarely used and so we never had to find the true difficulties of passing someone driving in the opposite direction.

There are a few pullover points that we stopped at. As we ascended into the mountains, we got gorgeous views of the Jamaican rainforest. I wanted to travel light so unfortunately I didn’t have my wide-angle lens with me, so I won’t be sharing any landscapes.

So what’s the deal with this place? Basically, if you look through a list of cool-looking birds and want to find out where to find them in Jamaica, you’ll find that many of them are on Ecclesdown road. A great example is the Jamaican endemic Black-billed Parrot:

If you want to see this species, you can either go to Cockpit Country or Ecclesdown Road. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go to Cockpit Country but we did see the Black-billed Parrot! Jamaica is not a crazy parrot frenzy like Australia, and in fact there only four species that can be seen in Jamaica: Black-billed Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, Yellow-billed Parrot, and Green Rumped Parrotlet. We only saw the first two, which I was pretty happy with given the thickness of the rainforest. There are a few other birds to keep an eye out for around Ecclesdown road. One is the Jamaican Blackbird, and we did not see it. According to another eBird report, apparently there is a specific spot good for it, but you’d probably have to get a guide to tell you where it is. We did see the Jamaican Crow, however:

As you can tell, I didn not get a great shot of it, but as it was high in the canopy, I’m pretty happy with it, and we did get to hear its call. Bird photography in the rainforest is not easy, but the upside is that the darker rainforest will also shield you from the heat. There are two other species to keep a special eye out for: the Black-billed Streamertail and the Vervain hummingbird. These were difficult to see elsewhere.

Black-billed Streamertail, one of four hummingbirds that can be found in Jamaica.

Some lists like eBird have Black-billed and Red-billed Streamertail as one species, but I am not so sure they are.

The Vervain Hummingbird is so small it actually looks like a large insect!

Would I recommend Ecclesdown road as a birding location? I would say yes. It is a little difficult, but if you want an extra chance at some species like Black-billed Parrot, Jamaican Crow, and others, it would be hard to avoid this place. It is also a nice and relaxing place to bird, and is probably the nicest birding location in the region. My only suggest is: stay at a quieter hotel more amenable to a birder’s schedule!

Green Castle: Part 1

The White-chinned Thrush is a Jamaican endemic and also easy to find.

The Green Castle Estate is a true gem. After staying here, I vowed that we should come back to Jamaica. It’s that good. What makes it so?

A Grackle enjoying the fountain on the grounds of Green Castle.

It is a popular place with birders. So, naturally I asked whether anyone else was staying at Green Castle. It turned out, no one was. How lucky is that? Because of this, we got every square centimeter of the forest all to ourselves. With the exception of the main road, we didn’t see another soul in our hours of walks. I would probably still really love this place if there were a few other people around, but the lack of other people made this place really special.

Bananaquit: Why are there birds called “*quits”? I still haven’t figured that out.

Anyway, we immediately started seeing new birds on our arrival. There are hummingbird feeders in the main area, and we saw the Jamaican Mango. We are pretty sure we saw it before at Great Huts, but the view was not great there and it was good to have a confirmed sighting.

Jamaican Mango

The Red-billed Streamertail is also pretty much impossible to miss, and with that we got all four hummingbird species of Jamaica. Some people think that the two streamertail species in Jamaica are actually the same species. That might actually make sense, but we are keeping them as separate on our list.

Look at those streamers on this Red-billed Streamertail!

The Red-billed Streamertail. Now we’ve seen all four hummingbirds 🙂

Green Castle has several trails, most of which are great. The only trail that I would caution against is the Farm Road Loop. There are several random dead ends (one of them might be someone’s private coconut stash), and the only way through possibly could have been through someone’s bee farm.

We saw this Greater Antillean Bullfinch on the Davy Hill trail, but it should be possible to see it all over the estate.

Anyway, the first trail we did was the Waterfall trail. The guest information binder says that Red-billed Streamertails can be found drinking from the waterfall at the end of the trail, and it turned out to be right. They just hover and even sometimes perch on the rock face, and drink from the waterfall. On this trail we also saw Caribbean dove.

Green Castle: The Tody

One bird we really thought would be easier to see is the Jamaican Tody. I was a little worried when we didn’t see it on Ecclesdown Road, and even more worried when careful scrutiny of the forest did not yield the Tody on the first day at Green Castle. We did see plenty of Turkey Vultures, however.

The Turkey Vulture is known locally as the John Crow bird.

That night, I loaded the Tody’s call on the net and listened very carefully. Its regularly repeating squawk seared in my mind must have done something, for the next day on Tower Road, I heard that call, looked up and saw the Tody.

At last, the Tody. One of our top target species!

It is actually fairly fearless. You have to look up a little. Its typical behaviour (we saw it two more times after) is to sit, call, and then move to another nearby branch. For me it was one of the main highlights of the trip.

The rays of sun shining through the Jamaican forest on an early morning walk.


The Common Ground dove is…uh…common on the ground.

Green Castle: The Coast

We walked down Tower Road later that day to go to the coast. It is called Tower Road probably because there is a “Windmill Tower” structure (where we accidentally surprised a Barn Owl).

According to the visitor information guide, which I highly recommend reading:

[A] visit to the tower is essential as it is a site that embodies the rich history of colonial Jamaica. Spanish settlers, African slaves, and British people; sugarcane and rum and a natural beauty that underscores that this is the land of wood and water. The coral stone tower was built by the British in the 1700’s using hardwood timber dating to the 15th century Spanish occupation.

There were a lot of Cave Swallows at the coast itself, though you can also seem them flying around the farm area closer to the tower. I am not so sure I recommend the coastal walk itself, as sadly it is littered with a tremendous amount of garbage. However, the views of the ocean are pretty.

A coastal view near the start of Tower Road.

Also, near the “Blue Hole”, we found a bunch of Yellow-Crowned Night Herons roosting!

Green Castle: The Reservoir

The best part of Green Castle: the reservoir!

In my opinion, the best trail is the Reservoir trail, which can be accessed by first heading off on the Cuckoo trail and then following the signs for the Reservoir.

We kept seeing Caribbean dove on the turnoff to the Reservoir Trail

Another endemic, the Jamaican Oriole, is see here holding a spindly grass shoot. Is it going to build a nest?

The Reservoir is a little lake surrounded by rainforest. Since there were no other people around, it really felt to me like going millions of years into the past to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. We also got quite a few species around this lake: Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Green Heron, Snowy Egret, Least and Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, and Common Moorhen.

An American Coot swimming in the reservoir. Is it the subspecies Caribbean Coot? Who knows

What about the Caribbean Coot?! Indeed. We spent a long time trying to figure out if any of the coots in the lake were Caribbean coots. However, research research has convinced most people that the Caribbean Coot is actually just a subspecies of American Coot, so after looking carefully at some promising specimens, I was happy to leave the list at American Coot only.

We found three species of Ducks. Ruddy Duck was the most common, and we also saw Blue-winged Teal. The star of the show of course was the West Indian Whistling Duck. I honestly wasn’t planning on seeing this one, but there it was:

The rare West Indian Whistling Duck

We saw them pretty much every time we came to the Reservoir. This particular duck is classified as vulnerable and the largest population is actually on Cuba. That it has places like Green Castle to roost makes Green Castle a pretty important haven for this species, especially since the Caribbean has undergone a lot of natural habitat loss.

Summary

Visiting Jamaica and especially Green Castle was an amazing experience, and I wish we had a few more days at Green Castle. When it came time to go, we slowly made our way back to the airport. We didn’t do much birding on the way back, though I did see the Brown Pelican that I missed on our initial long drive to Great Huts. It was the only new bird that I did not get to photograph.

Is there a downside to Jamaican birding? I would say that for first-time visitors, there are not many random places to just stop and twitch. You really have to plan specific areas to visit. This was much different than Australia, where there are many great national parks and peaceful wild areas to appreciate. However, great places to bird exist like Green Castle, and so I would still wholeheartedly recommend Jamaica for a visit!

By the way, if you are interesting in going to Jamaica or the Caribbean yourself, check out Birds Caribbean for conservation information on Caribbean birds, and don’t forget to submit your observations to eBird!

Appendix: List of endemics we saw

You can check out the entire list of birds that we saw in Jamaica, but for quick reference, here is a list of the endemics that we saw.

  1. Black-billed Parrot
  2. Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo
  3. Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo*
  4. Jamaican Mango
  5. Red-billed Streamertail
  6. Black-billed Streamertail
  7. Jamaican Tody*
  8. Jamaican Woodpecker
  9. Jamaican Pewee
  10. Sad Flycatcher
  11. Rufous-tailed Flycatcher*
  12. White-eyed Thrush*
  13. White-chinned Thrush
  14. Jamaican Crow*
  15. Jamaican Spindalis
  16. Yellow-shouldered Grassquit
  17. Orangequit

This list might give you a good idea of which species that need special attention to target! I put a star on the ones we saw only once or twice as we found those were more tricky than the rest. I believe we also heard the Euphonia but I am not entirely sure so I didn’t add that to our list.

Also, the Northern Potoo, while not an endemic, was a species I really wanted to see, but didn’t. Apparently it is very common at Green Castle, and sometimes comes by the lamps at night to hawk for insects, but I never saw any insects by those lamps. Perhaps it was too late in the season? The Jamaican Owl is also supposed to be at Green Castle, but I think you might need a guide to find that one, or else a lot of spotlighting patience. Good luck!

2 Comments

  • Pete Collins says:

    Very interesting blog, my partner and I also went to Jamaica last year and I would not hesitate to go back if it were easier to get to from Australia. I did a few blogs on the trip which may be of interest and can be seen at Ballaratbirder which is a Weebly site. It seems just Googling Pete C Collins Ballarat birder works. We also hired a car and found no problems with the roads or the people. As my partner is not a birder we did some touristy things but they turned up some surprising birds the best was on a rafting trip where we saw the Arrowhead Warbler.
    Coming from Australia I was also delighted to see so many American migrants. Anyway glad you had a great time and staryed away from the resorts as we went in a quiet time we rarely saw any resort touristy types. I shall now turn the heating up and think of a Canadian spring.
    Cheers Pete Collins, Ballarat Australia

  • Peter Bright says:

    Thanks for the great read Jason & Emily. Cheers, Peter.

Leave a comment

Fields marked with * are required. LaTeX snippets may be entered by surrounding them with single dollar signs. Use double dollar signs for display equations.