15 February to 7 March 2018
Report by Paul and Sally Bartho
For years I have been wanting to return to Jamaica where I was brought up. Last year we committed to go, choosing this time of the year for best birding. Also the coolest time to go. The last time I visited was 32 years ago and that was only for 4 days – no where near enough.
Click Map of Jamaica to see places we visited – marked using red pins – hover your mouse over the red pins to see details. It is possible to zoom in and out. Map care of Google Maps.
Jamaica is a small island about 140 kms south of Cuba. It is about 225 kms east to west and 80 kms north the south at its widest point. It is extremely hilly away from the coast and has the Blue Mountain as its highest point towards the east of the island near Kingston – its capital city. Population 2.5 million with 40% in Kingston and Montego Bay.
The purpose of our trip was not only nostalgia but also included a week’s intense birding. Jamaica does have 26 endemic species so we hoped to see as many as we could among all their other birds. Click here to see a list of the Jamaican endemics.
We arrived in Montego Bay and spent a day there recovering from the long journey prior to the start of the week’s serious birding. The hotel grounds got us into the birding mode with many new species for us to identify. Among those was the Red-billed Streamertail. He was very obliging and we could approach within a metre before he got nervous and flew. He had his perches so we were able to study him closely.
The next day we were collected mid-day joining with two other couples who had just arrived. Our driver took us to Green Castle Estate in Robin’s Bay some two and a half hours away. Here we were based for the next seven nights.
We drove most of the way along the coast. Nostalgia set in. I was expecting to see change but was really disappointed to find that the entire beach side of the road to the sea was now houses, hotels or holiday resorts. Access to all the lovely beaches now belonged to someone and it was clear that local Jamaicans no longer had the easy access they used to have to enjoy their own beaches. Sad but that is what tourism does to lovely places.
About half way we had a pit stop next to a very popular “Pattie” shop. I encouraged all in our party to try a pattie or two. In the store they have a much larger choice than I remembered – the lovely flaky pastry could now be filled with a choice of fillings other than the mildly spiced mince of yore. All agreed they were delicious.
As we got closer the weather changed and the rain started. The north east side of the island – being closest to the Blue Mountains (7200 ft) – is the wettest part of the island and as a consequence the most lush. This rain continue on and off for the week we were there.
Eventually we reached Green Castle Estate. Here we met the two other couples in our group – 10 of us in all.
The accommodation was basic for some (us) and a bit more luxurious for others. From our room we had to go out onto our sloping balcony to enter our sloping bathroom – quite unique. However the views were spectacular and from our vantage point we could see the sea and the mountains beyond.
Green Castle Estate has 1600 acres of mainly forest with numerous walking trails – good for birding (if a bit muddy). Many of the endemic species have been seen on the property. Much of our time was spent on the estate with a guide to take us around.
However two days were set aside to explore the Blue Mountains and the John Crow Mountains near Ecclesdown. These trips were scheduled to find any of the missing endemic species we had not seen on the property. Both these trips required an early start – 04h30 – as the drive up the mountains – though short in distance – took a good couple of hours.
Here are some of the birds seen on the property.
And here are photos of birds seen in the mountains.
At the hotel we experienced some of the local Jamaican dishes which at times were quite spicy but tasty.
One evening Richard – the GC owner- took us around the property to find the Jamaican Owl. We heard it close to the accommodation and followed it from one area to the next but never actually saw it despite being close.
During our stay Jonathan Rossouw and his friend Malcolm arrived – staying for a few days to find endemics to get Jonathan over the 9000 mark – which he did with ease as he only needed about three more to do so.
On the day set aside to go to Ecclesdown with the guide I was not feeling well so Sally and I did not go. The rest of the group had great sightings of many of the endemic species we had not seen so far.
Friday – our last day – was a relax and sightseeing day. But Sally and I re-arranged our car hire to come on Thursday instead of on our last day – Saturday – so that we could explore the Ecclesdown Road area by ourselves on Friday.
The evening before heading for Ecclesdown we bumped into Jonathan Rossouw and his friend Malcolm and they very generously gave us precise details of where to go and what to expect to see in the various sections of the road. And very precise they were. Many thanks to them both for being so generous with their time and advice.
We also saw the Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo (a massive bird in flight and perched); a fleeting view of the Crested Quail-Dove; Yellow-billed Parrots in flight as well as a number of other species already seen.
Lunch at the jerk pork restaurant in Boston town on the way back.
On the way back we stopped at a river crossing and saw a few new species of waterbirds.
There was one species which we enjoyed seeing – unlike back in South Africa where they are all so similar – and that was the Warblers – mainly winter migrants from America. They were colourful and for the most part quite distinct.
After a hectic week it was time to relax, birding nowhere near as intense. We headed for the area around Ocho Rios to see Fern Gully and the famous Dunns River Falls.
Fern Gully was very impressive – a seven km drive climbing up a twisting narrow road through a forest of ferns on either side.
Then to Dunns River Falls.
One look at the hoards of tourists and we turned around and left. We had been told there was another Falls at YS on the south coast which compared favourably so we planned to go there instead.
Lunch and dinner were had at Mammee Bay beach – we were able to enter as we stayed at a house in that complex. A bay I used to visit with fond memories and it did not disappoint. There were a variety of seabirds to challenge us and some obligingly sat on a distant fish pot to test our skills.
This overnight stay was on a Saturday and we were entertained with a number of weddings taking place on Mammee Bay and adjacent beaches.
Negril was our next destination after one night in Mammee Bay.
Along the way we came upon my family’s favourite swimming beach at Discovery Bay. Now all cordoned off and inaccessible sadly.
We drove past some swamps along the way, stopped to view the birds:
On the way we popped in to Rocklands Bird Sanctuary near Montego Bay. We were told that the Red-billed Streamertails dined from your fingers. We had to go. The views were spectacular and the birdlife abundant. Even a Jamaican Woodpecker put its head out of its nest hole for us.
At Nigril we had 4 nights in an apartment in a complex between two nudist hotels – catering for the over 50s it appeared!! The Point (our complex) is situated at the north end of the seven mile beach of Negril – at the extreme west of Jamaica. Virtually all seven miles is now surrounded by establishments of one sort or another. Shame. It has lost a lot of its charm.
Here we lazed by the sea and met up with an old school friend of mine (from Jamaica days) and his wife – Bruce and Patti. They had lived and worked in Nigril years yonder and so knew their way around despite the enormous changes they experienced after 14 years of not re-visiting the island.
Some birds seen in the grounds.
We spent time together, lazing on the beach, testing the local restaurants and exploring the south coast off the beaten track. On one of our excursions we visited the Blue Hole, Homer’s Cove and Little Bay. (See map)
Blue Hole is situated SE of Nigril inland from the coast. The Blue Hole is a fresh water spring about 6 metres wide and 6 metres below ground level. There are trees surrounding it. The local guides scamper up the trees and then throw themselves down into the Blue Hole doing somersaults in the process. For us it was a challenge climbing down the vertical ladder to the water.
Homers Cove and Little Bay are quaint bays mostly unspoilt by tourism fortunately.
Despite being told that the Royal Palm Reserve had been closed for years, Sally and I decide to see for ourselves and do some birding along the way.
Our first challenge was to get there. The road in is through the swamps and in one place it had flooded over. Not knowing how deep it was, I tentatively started driving through. Sally went silent and suggested not to proceed each time the car took a dip. Being a typical man I ignored her and much to my surprise we just got through with the water level up to the door at times.
A little further along we came to the entrance gate – closed of course. However we could see the old reception some 200 metres or more straight ahead and there was someome on a bicycle coming our way. We were let in and managed to get permission to look around despite the boardwalk having the odd hole and wobbly railings – not nearly as bad as we were led to believe.
The groundsman took us round and his bird knowledge was exceptional. He knew all the sounds and his eyesight was sharp. It was a wonderful setting in the wetlands, interesting boarded walkways and even a tower above the lush canopy. Here we got good sightings of two of the endemics we had dipped on while at Green Castle Estate – the Jamaican Elaenia and the Jamaican Euphonia. We had good views of the Spotted Sandpiper, West Indian Whistling Duck and Northern Jacanas.
After our stay at Nigril we headed for Treasure Beach further round the south coast. We drove through Savanna La-Mar, past Bluefields and Black River. Most of the places we passed have been built up – as expected I suppose, despite the south coast not being renowned for tourism.
Our base for the next three nights was at The Two Seasons Guest House – inland from the coast. Our hostess, Christine, could not have been more obliging. Excellent local breakfasts to boot.
On arrival a Vervain Hummingbird greeted us – hovering in the flowers at the entrance.
The plan here was to visit several local attractions: YS Falls, Bamboo Avenue (a road through over 4 kms of bamboo either side), Black River and a bird tour upstream as well as Alligator Pond.
The first day was a long day – a bit longer than we had planned. We headed for YS Falls. driving through Bamboo Avenue to get there. They only opened at 09h30. We arrived early and spent time enjoying the scenery, birds and race horses.
Some birds also stole our attention while we waited:
We were taken to the Falls by tractor and were very impressed when we got there. Very verdant and magnificent falls down the gorge. Sally even went for a swim even though the water was very nippy. On arrival we were greeted by interesting signage.
Sally got up to a bit of magic lifting water into the air with her open down-facing hand and then letting go. Watch this:
And then just as we were leaving a Louisiana Waterthrush appeared.
On the spur of the moment we decided to drive up to the Cockpit Country. A very scenic uphill drive to Accompong. In some ways we regretted that we did not spend a night or two up there as we could probably have organised a bird guide to take us into the Cockpit Country to find more of the endemics we had missed earlier.
Next we headed for Black River to take a touristic boat tour up river. On the way we passed through Middle Quarters where they sell spicy prawns by the packet – now in the many touristic style farm stalls. However we never stopped to try them. I remember them well and the lips burning after guzzling too many.
At Black River I managed to talk one of the boat drivers to give us a private bird tour up river. Here we saw a huge heronary occupied by various species of Egrets – Cattle and Snowy mainly with a few Great Egrets.
Also a crocodile.
And on the mid stream lillies American Purple Gallinules, Common Moorhens, American Jacanas, Great and Little Blue Herons.
A number of Gulls and Terns kept us nosing in our books to try and ID them.
In Treasure Beach there are two popular places to go – to eat and swim – Jack Spratts and Jakes. We treated ourselves to meals at both as well as a local restaurant we had been told about. One thing notable was that eating out was expensive wherever you went and the quality of the food was often below standard – except of course if you found a local establishment.
Early one morning on our way to Alligator Pond we went to investigate the Pedro Ponds. This required a tortuous drive down a farm track which ought to have been accessed in a 4×4. We managed very slowly in places eventually driving into a field by the ponds where we saw someone fishing.
Here, we had good if not distant sightings of a number of water birds. Least and Pied-billed Grebes, American and Caribbean Coots, West Indian Whistling Ducks and a number of Herons including an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron.