The Caribbean – Our Days in Jamaica – March 8-11, 2016

Being that Ross is back in school and is back on a “student schedule” we knew he would be given a spring break and decided to take full advantage of this time off. I requested off of work well in advance and we began planning our two-week trip to the Caribbean, deciding to visit Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

The first country on our list of places to visit was Jamaica. Jamaica, the third largest island in the Caribbean, is dominated by an extensive mountain range with roughly 80% of the island being hilly or mountainous. These features allow for varying habitat and therefore a range of bird species. The good news about birding Jamaica is that all 27 of Jamaica’s endemic birds can easily be found in just a few days.

Our first full day (March 8th) was mostly spent travelling. We flew from Richmond Airport at 5am, and had one layover in Charlotte, NC before catching a flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica. We arrived in Jamaica and soon found the truth behind the stereotype “Jamaican time.” Unfortunately the rental car personnel moved at the pace of turtles and could not multitask whatsoever, which was borderline annoying since we were in a bit of a hurry, but eventually we did receive the keys to our rental car and were on our way. Ohh Jamaican time…

In typical budget fashion, we rented the cheapest car we could, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention the condition of the car we used while navigating the island. We’ve traveled to many countries and have even rented several Toyota Yarises before, but none were as beat up as this particular rental. This was a bit of a shame as we used “Thrifty” a well-known rental car company. Aside from squeaking breaks, random odd sounds, a sheared off bolt on the wheel (not realized until we removed the hub cap to change a flat tire) and having a tail light out the whole time, the car ran and I guess that’s all we really could ask for. (But perhaps it would have been a little less stressful actually knowing the car was going to run the whole time because we pretty much wondered where we would be on the island when it would break down.)

Don't let it fool you, this car was a disaster.

Don’t let its borderline looks fool you, this car was surely unfit to be a rental.

Notice that an entire bolt is missing. No big deal right?

Notice that an entire bolt is missing. No big deal right?

Our goal for the afternoon/evening on our first day in the country was to head to the Blue Mountains to a site popular among birders known as Hardware Gap, where many of the Jamaican endemics can be found. (For anyone reading this who doesn’t already know, the entire purpose of this trip was to immerse ourselves in the forests and see all of the island’s endemic birds.  Hence the reason we visited the obscure places on the island that the average tourist would have never heard of.) Instead of getting a hotel, we camped on the mountain at a campground at Holywell National Park.  The drive to get there took a lot longer than expected and with a lot of fog and a little rain, we didn’t arrive at our destination until 4:30pm. The rest of the afternoon was a literal wash and we didn’t really accomplish much other than drive up and down the road near the National Park sign hoping that despite the conditions we could still manage to find a few of our targets. Unfortunately, we weren’t really successful in locating much. As dusk approached we headed to bed, hoping the next morning’s weather would be improved.

Hardwar Gap covered in fog.

Hardwar Gap covered in fog.

The next morning, March 11th, we again birded up and down Hardware Gap. Despite the wind, rain, and fog, before first light we had two juvenile Jamaican Owls calling in our vicinity but with the relatively bad weather and the terrain preventing us from going off road to find them, we knew that seeing them was nearly impossible. The entire morning was very quiet due to the weather, but despite the heavy fog, we slowly managed to see most of our main targets. Highlights included Crested Quail Dove, Jamaican Blackbird, Blue-mountain Vireo, Arrowhead Warbler and a number of the other common endemics. By mid morning we were happy with the birds we had found and decided to head off to Ecclesdown Road hoping the weather would be better closer to the coast.

Crested Quail Dove

Crested Quail Dove

Jamaican Blackbird silhouetted with the fog

Jamaican Blackbird silhouetted with the fog. (Spoiler alert: we eventually get MUCH better looks!)

The road was a mix of peaceful combined with lunatic drivers with loud engines speeding around the bends.

The road was a mix of peaceful quietness combined with lunatic drivers with loud engines speeding around the bends. It was definitely traveled more than we anticipated

En route to our next birding location, we stopped at a little shack on the side of the road to get some authentic jerk chicken, because you can’t come to Jamaica and not eat the local grub! The place we stopped at was directly across the street from the ocean and for $8 a piece we each received half of a chicken rubbed with some of the best seasoning we’d ever had.

G&B Jerk Centre

G&B Jerk Centre

You can see it, but we had an ocean view while chowing down!

You can’t see it, but we had an ocean view while chowing down!

Two thumbs up!

Two thumbs up!

From Hardware Gap we drove past Port Antonio to a small road known among birders as Ecclesdown Road. There’s absolutely no reason a tourist would come to this road, which only adds to its charm. Say what you will about birding, but going to little-known remote places such as this is why I kind of love this form of travel – we had the small, lush road completely to ourselves.

Ecclesdown Road

Ecclesdown Road – My favorite place in Jamaica.

The weather was drastically improved from Hardware Gap, and it wasn’t long before we had several other endemics under our belt in the form of Yellow-billed and Black-billed Parrots, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo and Sad Flycatcher.

Waiting for parrots to fly over!

Waiting for parrots to fly over!

Black-billed Parrots perched

Black-billed Parrots perched

We spent the remainder of the afternoon hiking up and down enjoying the sights and sounds of Jamaica’s tropical forest. After dark we tried a few locations along the road for Jamaican Owl, but were unable to illicit a response. We then headed to a place we passed along the way called Woody’s burgers.

Glowing blue at the tourist-friendly burger shack.

Glowing blue at the tourist-friendly burger shack.

We ate some burgers and then decided we’d head back up to Ecclesdown Road to spend the night. Sadly, a few hundred meters after leaving Woody’s, we got a flat tire. Which comes as no surprise given the number of potholes on the roads and the rough shape our car was in to begin with. As an aside, does anyone actually confirm they have tire changing materials when the car rental person is telling you where everything is? We certainly looked at the spare tire in the back, but we trusted the man when he said the jack was under the passenger seat. When it came to the moment of truth, Ross and I were both nervous when we went to look. Thank God that everything was there, but a life lesson was learned – always check that the jack and wrench are present before driving off of the rental lot. (Sadly I never grabbed a quick photo of Ross changing the tire on the side of the Jamaican roadway!)

Hesitant to traverse the pot-hole ridden road again without a spare, we decided we’d head in the opposite direction, to a place called Green Castle Estate. Our two main targets remaining were Jamaican Mango and Jamaican Crow, and Ross remembered reading somewhere that both of those birds had been found there in the past so off to Green Castle we went. The biggest issue with the decision to go to Green Castle is that we had no information on where it was located. Kind of hard to find a place with no directions or no access to internet to look it up. Ross had read about it a while back while researching the island but couldn’t remember exactly where it was but we figured we might see a sign for it along our drive. Long story short, after a lot of driving, we ended up spending the night car camping in a hotel parking lot in Port Maria. Turns out we did drive right past a sign for Green Castle but we missed it in the dark!

The morning of March 10th was a borderline disaster. I’d skip over it entirely if it weren’t for the fact that we asked around and finally found Green Castle, only to find out that the two birds we wanted to see weren’t being seen there and that it was something like $30 per person just to walk the trails!! (Too insane of a price so we left.) So there was that setback on top of the flat tire setback. We got directions to a small tire repair shop and when we arrived, we learned that the tire that went flat had no less than THREE separate holes in it.

Ross talking with "redman."

Ross talking with “redman.”

The repair took about 40 minutes since there were three holes, but for $15 US we couldn’t complain too much. From here the decision was made to head back to Ecclesdown Road, a mere 2 hours drive from where we slept that night. Despite as the set backs, when we arrived at Ecclesdown Road at 11:30AM, the birds were still quite active and we had a very productive afternoon. Our main target was Jamaican Crow, which we successfully heard several times before finally seeing one particularly vocal individual circle overhead a few times. The road was extremely birdy all afternoon and we had a great time hiking around and watching several species from the day before. Despite the enjoyable afternoon, after a grand total of only four hours (yes we somehow turned one of only two full days of birding in Jamaica into only 4 hours of birding!!), it was time to get back on the road to start the long drive back to Montego Bay.

Jamaican Tody

Jamaican Tody

Just outside of Ochos Rios, we found Maamee Bay Hotel, a relatively inexpensive hotel compared with other hotels and we were able to negotiate the price down to $30 USD, where we were able to take a hot shower and sleep in a bed for the first time since arriving in the country. We went to bed early and checked out promptly at 3:30 AM so we could get back on the road and drive the remaining distance to Montego Bay. Our flight out of Jamaica didn’t leave until 3:30 PM, so we planned to spend the morning at Rockland’s Bird Sanctuary searching for Jamaican Owl and Jamaican Mango. We wanted to arrive at Rockland’s before first light to find the owl, but the pothole ridden road that the GPS took us down, slowed our progress dramatically and we didn’t arrive until it was nearly 5:15 AM.  Ross played the tape a few times along the entrance road to Rockland’s and we finally heard a Jamaican Owl calling from a nearby tree. Working against time, the sun began to rise all too fast and soon the owl quit calling and we never did get to see the endemic owl before the sun rose.

We still had hope that we might get to see a Jamaican Owl though as one of the main reasons for picking Rockland as our morning destination is that a day roosting Jamaican Owl is usually easy to find in the area. Originally the cost per person was $20 USD to walk the trails and $20 USD to feed the hummingbirds (AKA $80 total) but Ross was able to negotiate it down to only $40 USD for the two of us to walk the trails and simply watch the hummingbird feeders (which is still an absolutely ridiculous price, but when one wants to see a Jamaican endemic, one will often spend a little extra money knowing they don’t want to dip and will never be coming back.) Despite walking around with the local groundskeeper, Fritz, and checking all the locations that the owl sometimes roosts (it was seen two days earlier) we sadly did not see our main target. Luckily, we still manged to find a pair of roosting Northern Potoos perched on a tree.

Northern Potoo

Northern Potoo

Our final Jamaican endemic to be seen was a vibrant purple hummingbird, the Jamaican Mango. We were simply watching the hummingbird feeders when a tour group showed up to feed them. We wandered over with Fritz and not only saw the Jamaican Mango, but I got to feed it from out of my hands! (We weren’t planning to feed them, but one of the ladies from the tour group handed me her bottle and insisted that I try it.)

Jamaican Mango

Jamaican Mango

Me sitting with Fritz as the streamertail perches on my finger for a drink!

Me sitting with Fritz as the streamertail perches on my finger for a drink…check out that tail!

At the conclusion of our stint in Jamaica, we recorded all of the endemics in just two and a half days birding (although Jamaican Elaenia and Jamaican Owl were heard onlys), proving that the endemics are fairly easy and one doesn’t need to spend too much time in the country. We weren’t overly impressed with Jamaica, but it sure was an adventure! From Jamaica we headed off to Puerto Rico but more on that to come!

,

Worm-eating Warbler (eating a banana)

.

Jamaican Oriole