With all the talk of Corona Virus, self isolating and the worries about travelling, it was a little touch and go whether it was possible or even the right thing to do to go overseas on a trip i'd been planning meticulously for the last 6 months. With no known travel bans to the islands we were going to it seemed ok to give it a whirl. Little did we know that within a few days of arriving in the Caribbean that it would all change. This is my story and as i'm writing this i'm still over here working out our next move. But for the moment and the beginning of my story all is good.
We arrived in Kingston at around 5.30pm on March 11th and quickly got through the immigration process as we’d travelled in Premium Economy. It was a good job we had as there was a lot of hassle on this flight with people moving seats and trying to keep away from some rather sick looking individuals in ‘cattle class’. Anyway, the baggage reclaim was hell and took forever and I’ve never been jostled as much as I was around the luggage carousel. But car hire was ok and we were away from the airport by 7pm. Then the satnav took us the wrong way and we ended up driving 2 hours along a very narrow and almost impassable (in places) dirt road to our hotel in the Blue Mountains. It was the drive from Hell but we arrived at 9pm at our mountain lodge and just crashed out, feeling slightly traumatised and weary.
I was up at 5am the next morning walking along the road at 5.45am, a little late to try Jamaican Owl but nevertheless excited as to the potential great birds to come. In fact I was ticking off Loggerhead Kingbird in the gloomy pre-dawn as it sat beside a lamp in the driveway and a vey close White-chinned Thrush was my second lifer of the day – even before the sun had risen over the hills. The surrounding forested hillsides were full of birds singing and it was fun trying to match up the calls to ones I had previously learnt, oh as well as the frequent thumbing through the Jamaica playlist on my iPhone! I enjoyed many fine looks at Red-billed Streamertail, and I followed this with several Jamaican Spindalis (and boy the males are true crackers), many Orangequits (the females had me scratching my head for a time), lots more White-chinned Thrushes, a superb White-eyed Thrush, several Jamaican Woodpeckers, and a few Jamaican Vireos. This was all relatively easy and straightforward and it was a good feeling racking up the lifers! But it wasn’t just all about the endemics, as I came across two flocks of warblers and saw 3 Ovenbirds, 2 Northern Parulas, 3 Black-throated Blue Warblers, 4 American Redstarts, a lone Prairie Warbler and 2 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.
|Red-billed Streamertail (male)|
There were inevitably a few glimpses of unidentified species and a few calls that had me a bit perplexed but overall I was happy. I probably only walked half a kilometre but notched up a few more endemics such as a fine Jamaican Oriole feeding low down in some bushes below the road (the only one I saw) , as well as a very close and bold Jamaican Tody – a real stunner.
I was overjoyed to get great looks at Blue Mountain Vireo, which is sometimes a tricky species to see well, along with a few Greater Antillean Bullfinches (not an endemic but still cool), and finished off with a perched Ring-tailed Pigeon back at the hotel. I did also see a brief flyby Crested Quail-Dove but this species was going to elude me all morning anyway! So by now it was 8.15am and time for breakfast, which was a little on the light side tbh. Oh and it was cooked by the groundsman (i think), a vey weird and awkward experience but one we were going to experience quite a bit on this island. It was like we always had to ask for a second cup of coffee, the service we experienced over the next few days was weird, odd and rather poor. And we generally felt unwelcome in most situations. But please read on............
|Blue Mountain Vireo|
|Blue Mountains Scenery|
So we were away and driving the short journey to Section on the main mountain road by 9.30am and it was a relief to get on a tarmac road after last night’s fiasco. But it was still a bit of an eye-opener how narrow this mountain road is.
|This is the main road up to The Gap|
We birded our way up to the Gap Café (which was closed) and found at least 2 Arrowhead Warblers, a species I was a little worried about seeing for no apparent reason. We saw a bunch of previously seen species from earlier this morning including Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Oriole, several more streamertails, a few Greater Antillean Bananaquits (a HBW species), loads of White-chinned Thrushes adorning the road, and a Black-and-white Warbler was new for the trip.
|Large Jamiacan Elaenia|
Moving on to the Woodside Track, I’d like to thank the guy sweeping leaves off the floor and killing my chances of seeing that pesky quail-dove. However, I did strike gold with a Large Jamaican Elaenia – an interesting bird as HBW split this ‘race’ from Greater Antillean Elaenia and thus also splitting Hispaniolan Elaenia in the process. I fired off a couple of shots that aren’t very good but the 2 whitish wingbars and the call made identifying this very tricky species quite straightforward. What made me doubt myself a little bit when I first saw this bird was the presence of a calling Small Jamaican Elaenia that gave great views. So what a double-whammy this was. I also saw another Blue Mountain Vireo, a few Jamaican Vireos, another Arrowhead Warbler and more spindalis. We checked out the Gap Café in the forlorn hope it was open as I was craving some coffee but it was inevitably closed, however just down the road I randomly played the call of Jamaican Blackbird, as I was really worried about finding this species, and one flew in straight away and landed nearby. In fact a pair were present and I spent quite a while watching them and managed some decent photos.
It was my original plan to stay until 2pm before heading to the next hotel on the north coast but by now it was just past midday and I was more than happy with my haul of 13 endemics so far. So set off down the bumpy, uneven, crappy main mountain road early and ticked off Jamaican Pewee and Greater Antillean Grackle along the way.
We reached the coastal road and the nicely paved highway just before I’d really had enough of the crap road and then we made good time to the next hotel, enjoying the scenery of clear blue Caribbean waters, palm trees and blue skies. The last two birds seen today were Common Ground Dove and Zenaida Dove at the entrance to the hotel in San San, which we reached at 3pm and just in time for a burger at Woody’s that was particularly underwhelming despite many reports to the contrary but the cold beers more than made up for it. And then I spent the remainder of the day chilling in the peculiar hotel I’d randomly chosen some months previously. But what a day with 17 endemics nailed.