JAMAICA & GRAND CAYMAN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Jamaica & Grand Cayman: Day 1 Our Jamaica birding tour begins this afternoon at Grand Cayman, where we will overnight.
Jamaica & Grand Cayman: Day 2 We will explore the scrubby woodland that is characteristic of Grand Cayman this morning, our target the endemic Vitellinbe Warbler. It is a common bird, so will take little time to find. Afterwards, we will take a short afternoon flight to Kingston on the much larger island of Jamaica, from where we will drive to Mandeville for a three nights stay.
Jamaica & Grand Cayman: Days 3-4 Situated at 2000ft (600m) on a high plateau of the Don Figuerero Mountains overlooking the south coast, Mandeville is a small hill town in the central area of Jamaica. Grand old mahogany trees and flowering yellow ‘poui’ and mango decorate the country lanes that lead us to a 300-acre (120-hectare) working cattle farm owned by the Sutton family at Marshall’s Pen. The centrepiece of the property is the Great White House, which must have been carved out of the wilderness in the early 1700s. It has amazingly survived at least four horrendous hurricanes and still maintains its old grandeur.
The spacious, colourful gardens and belts of pastureland, interrupted by thickly wooded copses, provide ideal nest sites for many of Jamaica’s common bird species and in fact well over half of the island’s endemics breed here. The following are all easily found: Jamaican Parakeet (sometimes split from the Olive-throated Parakeet of Central America), Jamaican Tody (an exquisite little critter, belonging to a family which is endemic to the Greater Antilles), Jamaican Woodpecker (which has become a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ filling several ecological niches), Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Jamaican Becard (easily located by its enormous nest high up in mature fruiting trees), Jamaican Vireo, Jamaican Euphonia, Jamaican Oriole (a virtual endemic, also occurring on the island of San Andres), Jamaican Spindalis (or Jamaican Stripe-headed Tanager) and the handsome Orangequit.
One of the major highlights at Marshall’s Pen is watching the endemic Red-billed Streamertails at the feeders. This amazing hummingbird shines emerald green in shafts of sunlight as it fiercely defends its sugar solution from duller and more normal-tailed females and from the larger endemic Jamaican Mangoes. Its tail streamers are elongated to three times its body length and are scalloped and fluted on the inside. Its wings create a high whining hum as the bird flies. Nicknamed ‘Doctorbird’ by local people, it is actually a status symbol for a family to attract streamertails to flowers in their garden. The name ‘Doctorbird’ comes from its practice of puncturing the base or sides of flowers with its bill to draw out the nectar, an act which resembles the 17th-century doctor poking around with his lancet.
Whilst creeping along the wide trails we will be listening for the raucous accelerating tones of a cuckoo. Both the elegant, endemic, yellow-bellied Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo and the larger endemic Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo inhabit the shady thick understorey of this dense woodland. In the forest glades, endemic Jamaican Elaenias and Jamaican Pewees sit motionless on their perches and occasionally explode into action to pick insects off leaves or twigs or to acrobatically catch them in mid-air. The easiest birding is in the gardens where an endemic White-chinned Thrush may hop on the lawns or an endemic Yellow-shouldered Grassquit may be seen unsuccessfully looking for a camouflaged background amongst the multi-coloured array of flowers. Biologists have opted out of making a decision as to whether this delightful black and yellow, berry- and seed-eating bird is a grassquit or a finch and have pronounced it to be another endemic genus. Greater Antillean Bullfinch and the local race of Bananaquit also flit around the gardens.
As dusk approaches we will listen for the hoarse throaty ‘whow’ that signals the waking up of a Jamaican Owl and human ‘wows’ may be heard as we find him hiding under a bromeliad or amongst the tangled vines that envelop most of the trees here! Another nocturnal delight is the Northern Potoo.
Other interesting species that we should find here include such Caribbean specialities as White-crowned Pigeon, the smart Caribbean Dove (normally a shy forest floor species, but not here), the gorgeous Zenaida Dove, Antillean Palm Swift, Grey and Loggerhead Kingbirds, Black-whiskered Vireo, Black-faced Grassquit and Greater Antillean Grackle.
More widespread species include Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel, White-winged Dove, Common Ground Dove, Ruddy Quail-Dove, the introduced Green-rumped Parrotlet, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Cave Swallow, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue and Prairie Warblers, American Redstart and Yellow-faced Grassquit.
During our sojourn at Marshall’s Pen, we will also visit the Black River Morass, the most extensive wetland in Jamaica. Here we will explore slow-moving, mangrove-fringed channels, enjoying the variety of waterbirds and raptors. Purple Gallinules and Northern Jacanas seem to be everywhere, and we will hope to find the diminutive Least Bittern crouched along a reedy edge. The uncommon West Indian Whistling Duck is mainly a nocturnal feeder, but small parties are regularly found here in the quieter stretches of marsh. Western Ospreys and Red-tailed Hawks perch on exposed boughs, while American Coots lurk near cover. As dusk approaches, Antillean Nighthawks float high over the open expanses.
Amongst the many other species, we may well see amongst the channels or at some saline lagoons are Least and Pied-billed Grebes, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Black-crowned and perhaps Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Green, Tricolored, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons, Great, Snowy, Reddish and Western Cattle Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Blue-winged Teal (and possibly other lingering ducks), the dashing Merlin, Sora, Common Gallinule (now treated as distinct from Common Moorhen), Black-necked Stilt, Grey (or Black-bellied), Snowy, Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers, Killdeer, Solitary, Spotted, Semipalmated, Least and Stilt Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Laughing Gull, Royal and Cabot’s Terns, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Caribbean Martin, Barn Swallow (and perhaps other swallow species), Mangrove Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Common Yellowthroat.
Jamaica & Grand Cayman: Day 5 This morning we will explore the only wilderness area left on Jamaica, the Cockpit Country. A karst limestone region of caves, sinkholes and ‘haystack’ terrain, the ‘Cockpit’ is basically a plateau that, over the aeons, has been eroded by rainfall whose carbonic acid content has gradually dissolved the rock and left behind a jumble of steep conical hills separated by deep depressions or ‘cockpits’. The tops and vertical hillsides have little or no soil to support vegetation, but the cockpits, in which the eroded minerals have been deposited, usually have very fertile soil and when undisturbed support thick vegetation and enormous trees. No fewer than a hundred plant species are endemic to the area.
Ramsgoat Cave in the heart of the Cockpit Country is the roosting haunt of Jamaica’s two endangered endemic parrots. In the early morning, small squawking flocks of both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Amazons noisily transfer from their roosting sites, situated on dead emergent branches of the highest trees, to the fruiting trees where they will gorge themselves all day. We will also be listening out for the jabbering and squabbling of endemic Jamaican Crows, which are still quite easily found in this area, and we will likely encounter the aptly-named Stolid Flycatcher. We should hear the soft cooing of the rare endemic Ring-tailed Pigeon which, although officially fully protected, is still shot by hungry locals and so one of Jamaica’s harder birds to see. With persistence, we have a good chance of locating one.
Later in the day, we will make a stop on the Portland peninsula to try and locate the shy Bahama Mockingbird. With a bit of luck we will see one displaying from a favourite bush. Migrant wood-warblers are usually about and may include Black-and-white, Palm, Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers, and Ovenbird, and possibly one or two of the scarcer species such as Worm-eating, Yellow-throated and Cape May Warblers. In the nearby mangroves, we may come across the skulking Clapper Rail or even a Prothonotary Warbler.
Afterwards, we will travel to Port Antonio for an overnight stay.
Jamaica & Grand Cayman: Day 6 This morning we will explore the ornithologically and touristically neglected John Crow Mountains at the eastern end of the island in search of the endemic Black-billed Streamertail. This isolated range, situated in the extreme northeast of the island, receives more rain than the rest of Jamaica and is covered in fertile plantations at the base and the lower slopes, while the upper reaches are clothed in virtually inaccessible lush forest. The two streamertails used to be treated as conspecific as earlier scientific investigations suggested that there was an overlap zone where some individuals had red and black bills, but these biologists failed to realize that it is the immature Red-billed Streamertails which show this two-tone bill colour! Black-billed Streamertails are, in fact, more blue-green in colour, have completely black bills and are only found in the humid eastern section of Jamaica. An excellent selection of other Jamaican endemics occur in the area.
Afterwards we will head for the Blue Mountains above Kingston, where we will stay for two nights at Silver Hill Gap.
Jamaica & Grand Cayman: Day 7 Today we will explore the slopes of the lofty Blue Mountains, overlooking the city of Kingston. These scenic mountains frame Jamaica’s capital and dominate the eastern third of the island, rising up to around 2200m (roughly 7200ft). They are covered with forests and dotted with plantations of Caribbean Pine and the famous Blue Mountain Coffee, the most expensive in the world. Alas, its fame and price have reached such heights that precious soil-conserving woodlands are being cleared for plantations at an alarming rate. However, on the cool, steep and often cloudy slopes, some good evergreen montane forest remains. The highest point that we will reach is about 1220m (around 4000ft) at Hardwar Gap, a thickly wooded mountain pass, where clouds move through the forest daily, creating a cool and damp environment which will be a welcome change from the hot humid lowlands.
The woods are dense with tree ferns, mahogany and Blue Mahoe and luxuriant with huge bromeliads and epiphytes, whose flowers attract the tiny Vervain Hummingbird (endemic to Jamaica and Hispaniola). Blue Mahoe is Jamaica’s national tree and the blossoms gradually change colour from yellow to orange to red. Mixed feeding flocks forage tirelessly through the dark montane evergreen forest, and include specialities like Greater Antillean Elaenia, the endemic Blue-Mountain Vireo and the endemic Arrowhead (or Arrow-headed) Warbler, joined by migrant parulids. The retiring endemic White-eyed Thrush feeds unobtrusively under shady shrubs. Experienced Neotropical birders will recognize the flutelike whistles and trills emanating from the canopy as coming from a solitaire, but few will be prepared for the shock of seeing a positively gaudy Rufous-throated Solitaire in its grey, chestnut, rufous and white plumage. The bird is usually easy to find as it sings from leafless branches instead of from inside thick canopy. More time, however, will have to be spent on locating two much less conspicuous endemics. The scarce endemic Jamaican Blackbird is, unlike most other New World blackbirds, arboreal and does not flock. It forages silently for insects in bromeliads and moss or at the base of tree-fern fronds where it tosses out dead leaves. The most difficult Jamaican endemic, however, is the Crested Quail-Dove, which is no easier to see than any other quail-dove. Our best chance will be to spot one turning over the leaf litter at the side of the road soon after dawn, before the sun makes it retreat into the shady parts of the forest. We may also see White-collared Swift here and perhaps American Black Swift.
Jamaica & Grand Cayman: Day 8 Early this morning, we will have another chance to look for the sometimes tricky Crested Quail-Dove or anything else we still need. Afterwards we return to Kingston airport, where our Jamaica & Grand Cayman birding tour ends.