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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2020 Narrative

In Brief: We ended our Jamaica tour a day early this year, with worries that the reduced number of flights back to the US might make returning home more difficult. It turned out we would have had at least most of our regular flights home anyway, but this year’s itinerary was a day longer than in recent years, and we didn’t miss much more than a chance at some fun open country, marsh, and mudflat birding. Once again, all of the island’s amazing endemics made it to the official tour list, though Crested Quail-Dove was much less cooperative than in the past – we all heard the skulkers, but only one or two participants saw it well. But we had repeated views of everything else, saw some of the rarer endemic subspecies, and delighted in absorbing ourselves in the amazing world of island endemism amongst the lizards, butterflies, snails, and plants.

In Detail: On our first birding walk just down the street from our hotel was very pleasant. Zenaida Doves were feeding in the parking lot alongside Common Ground-Doves and White-winged Doves. White-crowned Pigeon showed well in the trees, and a bird we assumed had to be Eurasian Collared-Dove turned out to be Ringed Turtle-Dove (the domesticated form of African Collared-Dove), as evidenced by its distinctive purring song. Jamaican Euphonia was the one endemic species we saw, but the strangely short-tailed Greater Antillean Grackles (an endemic subspecies) were also fun to see. Some of the group also managed to spot a Vervain Hummingbird in the non-native plantings. A Yellow-throated Warbler was a nice surprise (a first for this tour’s cumulative list), and a Yellow “Golden” Warbler at the end of the road was cooperative. The sewage ponds were good for padding the list with widespread water birds, after which we made our way eastwards to our hotel for the next two nights with a stop at Miss T’s for lunch. Black-billed Streamertails greeted us upon arrival at Goblin Hill, while after dinner the Jamaican Owls were vocal but not interested in showing themselves.

We had a fabulous morning along Ecclesdown Road, one of the most endemic-dense roads on any island in the world. Highlights for our small group were Jamaican Woodpecker, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Jamaican Spindalis, Arrowhead Warbler, Jamaican Tody, Black-billed Streamertail, and Jamaican Mango, the latter two most easily seen at the feeders at the hotel, where we leisurely spent much of the afternoon. Some of us took an easy outing to Point Folly, seeing a few migrant warblers around the ruins as well as Royal Terns over the Caribbean Sea. We also witnessed how Jamaicans were taking very seriously the threat of the Coronavirus even with fewer than 10 cases on the island, as our hands were sprayed with alcohol upon entering the grocery store. This evening we had better success with the owls, though only three of the group were present when one bird sat right out in the open.

Yellow-shouldered Grassquit was the prize bird on our morning walk near our hotel, and for the mid-morning outing, we had instant success with several White-tailed Tropicbirds immediately upon arrival at Hectors River. We made another pass on the Ecclesdown Road, where we got very close to Crested Quail-Dove with only a brief chance to see one if you were watching the right place at the right time. We had fantastic looks at Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos before it was time to go to our scheduled lunch for a traditional jerk meal in the town of Boston, where it is said to have originated. We arrived at our Silver Hill Gap hotel with plenty of time to enjoy the multitudes of Red-billed Streamertails visiting the feeders.

The only new bird we had in the Port Royal Mountains was Rufous-throated Solitaire, and even if we didn’t see one super well, we were treated to one of the most evocative songs in the country. Some saw Yellow-shouldered Grassquit even better than the day before, and everyone had their best views ever of Jamaican Spindalis when one flew in and landed in a bush right in front of us. Everyone knew to stand still, and it didn’t fear us as it began to feed on flower buds. Orangequit, Red-billed Streamertail, Jamaican Oriole, and Jamaican Woodpecker made it to the list of particularly memorable sightings today, as did a Lynx Spider feasting on an endemic Calisto zangis satyr. Lunch was at the Devon House (takeout only!), followed by their famous ice cream, and we were amazed at the closely swooping Antillean Palm Swifts in the courtyard.

We had a wonderful full morning at Marshall’s Pen. Even before breakfast, we located a pair of Jamaican Elaenias, which probably for the first time ever became the final and 27th endemic species for the tour list (we usually get it on the first or second day). We worked a bit harder to find the rare Greater Antillean Elaenia, but the views we had were incredible, as the bird came closer and closer (even without further playback). We were lucky this year that a Northern Potoo had been staked out for us, possibly on a nest, as it had been there for a few days and was still there when we left. In the afternoon we went to the southern tip of the island and were almost immediately rewarded with two Bahama Mockingbirds (we weren’t sure it was a pair or a singing adult with an older dependent in tow). Stolid Flycatcher also showed well, as did a pair of Clapper Rails that eventually came out of hiding to walk around amongst the red mangrove rhizophores. We worked up a big mob of wintering warblers of several species, and a nice surprise here was a Prothonotary Warbler, another addition to the 16-year-old master list.

What would turn out to be our final morning of birding in Jamaica started with an early morning drive into the center of the island to reach the fabled Cockpit Country. With almost every plant and critter an endemic species, we had a great morning. Both species of parrots were seen perched, and we were extremely lucky to spot a very rare Plain Pigeon as it flew across the “pit” and landed in a tree on the distant ridge. We were able to see the pale eye, the red in the wings, and then clinched it when its song reverberated against the limestone hills. The most entertaining bird of the day was a Jamaican Mango that set up a late morning territory at a blooming Agave sobolifera, chasing away any bird that might dare take some of the abundant nectar from the richly golden flowers. Jamaican Todies were also in evidence as we perused the fascinating vegetation (Moses-in-the-cradle was one plant that grabbed out attention), looked at lovely spiders, and noted a few lepidopterans, including a very cooperative Hammock Skipper on the foliage and a Jamaican Crescent in the road. Back at Marshall’s Pen, some of us finally got good views of Caribbean Dove, while the family of Least Grebes in the catchment basins chattered away.

With the news that Jamaica would be closing the airports to incoming foreigners at midnight, we weren’t so certain that our flights home would still exist the next day, so instead of what would have been a fun morning of birding in marshes, ponds, and mudflats, we made our way directly to Montego Bay. Soon after arrival all of us were confirmed on flights home a day early. All’s well that ends well. When we arrived on the island, there was one confirmed case, and as I write this three weeks later, the total has come to merely 47 on this island of about 3 million inhabitants. We can only hope they can manage to keep the spread controlled.

Updated: April 2020