Frenchman's Cove

Go to Jamaica
for the Birds

Story and photos by Velma Knowles

Who goes to Jamaica for bird-watching? That's what friends asked when they heard I was going birding in Jamaica. Truthfully, I was a little skeptical, too. After all, Jamaica is an island of beautiful beaches, cliffs, waterfalls, breathtaking mountain views, delicious local cuisine, Reggae music and, of course, their famous blue mountain coffee. But birds? Who knew?

I soon discovered the other side of Jamaica—a fascinating ecotourism destination made up of rainforest and highland valleys abundant with flora and fauna.

Jamaican Toby

Not everyone knows of my secret life as a wildlife photographer—with a particular soft spot for capturing wide varieties of birds. Sure, I've got my day job—but my love lies in traipsing through early morning dew to capture the perfect shot (or even just a glimpse) of our feathered friends. I've photographed hundreds of species around the U.S. All wildlife photography is challenging, but birding is even more so. You glimpse a perfect shot, and in an instant, your subject has flown away—the moment lost forever—so patience is truly a virtue if you want to capture these fascinating creatures.

More than 300 species call Jamaica home, with 28 endemic (native to the region) and 21 sub-species. Just imagine—28 species unique to this island. That sure can boost my life list. And so my quest began.

I arrived in Kingston for the scenic drive to Jamaica's Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, a romantic eco-chic hideaway nestled in lush organic tropical gardens. You can watch birds right from the spacious porch, which also provides spectacular views of the rolling hillside sweeping below.

We were up before the first light of dawn for the trip to Ecclestown Road, which runs languidly through the foothills of the Blue and John Crow Mountains. This remarkable region is one of the most outstanding birding areas on the island. There were no nature paths or trails—you can actually bird right from the road. The area quickly lived up to its famous reputation.

American Redstart

Trees laden with bromeliads and tumbling moss created the perfect environment for the endangered Jamaican Blackbird. First we heard the caw, and then the Blackbird appeared, its striking black body and pointed bill making it an easy find within the thick canopy of the forest.

I also spotted the Yellow-Billed Parrot, Jamaican Becard, Jamaican Spindalis, Ring-Tailed Pigeon, Jamaican Crow and the Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo (known as the Old Woman Bird for its somewhat crazy, cackling caw), all endemic birds to the island. In this one sitting, I saw birds I'd never seen before in my life, and the day had just gotten started.

From the scrub of the trees, I suddenly heard a loud hissing cheep—it was a Tody—all three inches of him. And then, nearby, I spotted a second one…two Jamaican Todys in one view. Now that's birding.

Next it was on to Reach Falls, a cascading, sparkling waterfall surrounded by lush jungle. It's considered the best waterfall in Jamaica, and you'll find locals and visitors alike swimming in the clear surrounding pools. For movie buffs, you'll recognize the falls from the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.

It also happens to be perfect for birding. I quickly spotted the Black-Throated Blue Warbler (a migrant on his way to the U.S.) and uncovered the biggest delight of all—a female Black-Billed Streamertail Hummingbird sitting peacefully on her nest. Also the national bird of Jamaica, this hummingbird features a shimmering, brilliant-green chest and thin black streamers that trail behind it as it flits from branch to branch. This was an amazing find! Staying at a good distance, I made sure not to disturb her, but quickly shot a few photos of this shy creature.


Jamaican Woodpecker

The next day we were up with the sun to begin birding again. We didn't have to go far, as the hotel grounds deliver some precious treasures in the form of four more endemics—the Arrow-Headed Warbler, Orangequit, White-Chinned Thrush and Sad Flycatcher. Also present were the Jamaican Oriole and a few migrant warblers, including the Worm-eating, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Northern Parula and Cape May Warbler.

Most warblers are small and often brightly colored—particularly the males. Their spindly legs, seemingly no larger than toothpicks, are amazing adept as they flit among the branches. Their most distinguishing characteristic is, of course, their songs, which can create a symphony in the wild with their varying sounds.

After a stiff cup of Jamaica joe, we headed to Forres Park Nature Resort and Spa. We made a quick stop at Hope Gardens, the largest botanical garden in the West Indies. In the lush surroundings, I spotted a Yellow-Billed Parrot nibbling on Carambola fruit (known as starfruit in the U.S.). We also spotted the Smooth-Billed Ani (aka Tick Bird), Jamaican Crow, Zenaida Dove, Greater Antillean Grackle, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron and Common Moorhen. Not bad for a stopover!

Jamaican Red-billed Streamertail

We continued on, our bus lumbering up the Blue Mountains to Mavis Bank, a tiny village in the heart of coffee country. We were staying the next two nights in a historic cottage that had been transformed into a plantation house. The sweeping upper verandah provided some great birding. In the lush countryside, I quickly spotted the Red-Billed Streamertail Hummingbird, the Bananaquit, and the Jamaican Elaenia.

We headed up the mountain early for Hardwar Gap, an area we'd heard was particularly good for rare species. We eagerly hiked the mountain, pausing frequently to listen for tell-tale calls. We spotted the Jamaican Pewee, Blue Mountain Vireo, Greater Antillean Elaenia, Black-Faced Grassquit and the Rufous-Throated Solitaire. We also spotted a number of other rare specimens. This location ended up being a gem for birding.

Exhilarated from the morning, we relaxed and feasted on a lavish brunch at Strawberry Hill & Spa. Perched 3,100 feet above sea level in the Blue Mountains, the breathtaking views actually took a backseat to the guest that joined us. Ann Haynes Sutton, co-author of the book A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica is renowned for her stunning photography and in-depth information about the birds of Jamaica. She led us on a birding walk, providing insightful tips and interesting observations.

Blue Mountain Trail

Refreshed after a really good night's sleep (mountain air and hiking will do that to you), we made our way up the mountain to Abbey Green. This plantation has been growing coffee for more than 200 years and is located in a forest some 5,000 feet above sea level. It's the highest point in Jamaica and is also famous for the Ring-Tailed Pigeon, Crested Quail-Dove and Chestnut-Bellied Cuckoo. All were sightings I was able to add to my list.

I had been hoping that I would see the two-inch Vervain Hummingbird (Little Doctor Bird). This precious little one (the second-smallest hummingbird in the world) is not an easy find. I had almost given up when our keen-eyed driver saw one flitter past. It was one of the most memorable finds of the trip.

On my final day, I spent a moment reflecting. I had gotten used to the chorus of birds that seemed to follow us throughout our journey, and one almost—almost—gets used to the impressive views everywhere you turn.

Over the course of my brief stay, I had the chance to see 60 species, with 34 being life birds, and of the 28 endemics on the island, I saw an amazing 25 of them.

I missed only the Jamaican Owl, Black-Billed Parrot and the White-Eyed Thrush. This gives me at least three great reasons to go back.

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