Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Jamaica to Puerto Rico

Well neither of us expected this. Awake at 7am I couldn’t shift out of bed so trawled the internet and read about the doom and gloom surrounding the Corona Virus outbreak and it became startlingly clear that we had to leave Jamaica early as per the Foreign office advice. Combine that with President Trump stating people from the UK were not going to be admitted into the USA from midnight tomorrow and we realised a hasty retreat was necessary. So a 3.5 hour drive to Montego Bay followed (passing Olive-throated (Jamaican) Parakeets along the way) and once in the airport things really kicked off. It seemed that being UK nationals made us ‘persona non grata’ and unwelcome, but the kind American Airlines lady got us onto the next flight out of Jamaica as we were not allowed to fly as scheduled tomorrow to Puerto Rico. There was not much dialogue between us and to be honest neither of us new really what happening and in hindsight maybe we should have been a bit more insistent about exactly where we were flying to? Hindsight is a wonderful thing (and it's really easy to criticise) but please remember that at the time things weren't as bad as they are right now.....

So, the only thing was the next flight to Miami was in an hour and I had to run back to the rental car to get our luggage, run back in with them and then return to the car and drop it off at the rental station just around the corner. I was sweating when I got back to Lynzi and we rushed through security and to the gate, just in time to board the plane. Believe me, being British and sweating in an airport doesn’t win you any friends! Anyway, the flight to Miami was uneventful and it only took 45 minutes to pass through immigration, security and get our luggage passed onto the next conveyor belt – I think this must be a record! And we were on the connecting flight to San Juan in Puerto Rico before the travel ban for Brits into USA territory began and a short flight got us in at around 11pm where we holed up in the airport hotel. A beer in the bar was very welcome tonight. During the flight we learned from the pilot that the president of Puerto Rico had imposed a curfew from 9pm to 5am every night and most shops, restaurants, hotels etc were to be closed for the rest of the month. Speaking to  the bar staff we learned that although you couldn’t eat in the restaurants you could order a takeout and that supermarkets were open during the day before the curfew began at night. Add to this a few of the hotels I had pre-arranged emailed to cancel and we were really up against it. Oh and there’s only 5 cases of the virus on Puerto Rico at the moment!

Friday, 27 March 2020

Ecclesdown Road

Back on track this morning, rattling off another 8 endemics in a cracking 3 hour session on Ecclesdown Road, leaving me just Jamaican EuphoniaJamaican Mango and Olive-throated Parakeet (not endemic) to find. So the day began a little after 6.15am with groups of Jamaican Crows flying across the valley with one individual perched out on a prominent dead tree calling for several minutes. A calling Jamaican Becard only showed briefly but I needn’t have worried as just a short distance up the road I heard another one singing and jumped out of the car to find a female attending a nest. 

Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo

The first of 3 Jamaican Lizard Cuckoos was then seen and they all showed really well but in the gloomy weather (it was drizzling on and off for an hour this morning and very overcast) I failed spectacularly to get a good photo! A cracking Crested Quail-Dove walking along the road in front of my car was superb, and I saw another one doing the same thing on my return later. 

Crested Quail-Dove

Next up was a Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo skulking beside the road, whilst more endemics followed in the shape of numerous Black-billed Streamertails, Orangequits, Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Vireo, 2 Arrowhead Warblers and a few Jamaican Tody’s, plus Greater Antillean Bullfinch

Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo

By now it was 8.45am and I was getting concerned that none of the distantly calling amazons were coming closer. But I needn’t have worried as all of a sudden I saw some movement in a roadside tree and there were 3 Black-billed Amazons sitting quietly. They flew off but only for 50 metres or so and joined a few more in a bare tree, where I managed to fire off a few record shots. 

Black-billed Amazon

Shortly after a couple Yellow-billed Amazons flew over and I had a couple more flight views later in the morning in much better light. Walking back to the car I was just about to get in when a bird flew into some tall bamboo next to me. Getting my binoculars on it, I was blown away when it proved to be a Yellow-shouldered Grassquit – a bird I was expecting to dip on to be honest. And that was me done for the day, with some more business stuff to do and people to meet. Oh and another siesta! Dinner tonight was at the strange Italian restaurant in Port Antonio.....

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Jamaica Still........

I'd like to point out that these Caribbean blog posts began way before the worldwide Coronavirus issues began to affect all walks of our life and countries began locking down and restricting travel. It's not meant to be a frivolous story-telling on how good we did, but a factual account of what we saw and the events surrounding our visit. In fact, things were about to get very tricky in a day or so.......

I was up and out at dawn, walking down the road from the hotel to the lush, subtropical forest that envelopes the hillsides here. To be honest I found it quite tough going in the humid conditions, especially as the forest is so thick here and it really was dark and gloomy until the sun appeared over the hills but that wasn’t until I was walking back! 

San San Forest Road

However, I did get great looks at both Rufous-tailed and a pair of Sad Flycatchers, as well as several Caribbean Doves at a fruiting tree, and a nice couple of Ruddy Quail-Doves were walking along the leaf-strewn road in front of me! 

Caribbean Dove
Sad Flycatcher

I also saw a pair of Arrowhead Warblers this morning, along with Loggerhead Kingbird, Jamaican Woodpecker, Jamaican Tody, Black-billed Streamertail, White-eyed and White-chinned Thrushes, Jamaican Spindalis, numerous White-crowned Pigeons and Louisiana Waterthrush.

Arrowhead Warbler

White-chinned Thrush

After breakfast we drove over to Ecclesdown Road and checked out the site, at completely the wrong time of day. The highlights weren’t many but better views of Black-billed Streamertail, a nice Black-whiskered Vireo, Worm-eating Warbler and a few Yellow-faced Grassquits were the pick of the bunch. Feeling a little deflated we headed off to visit some other places and enjoy a bit of a late afternoon siesta. 

Jamaican birding style...

My mood was lifted considerably when I managed to call in a Jamaican Owl after dinner and had decent views but was too enthralled with the beast to take a photo! 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Caribbean Birding, Corona Virus & Lifers!

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. 

Jamaican Tody

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. 

Jamaican Blackbird

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.