05 April 2015

Meeting the Mountain Witch...JAMAICA (23rd March)

One of the interesting things about Jamaican birding is the list of fascinating local names attached to birds. Some of them makes sense, Jamaican Tody, with its gaudy red throat, is known as Robin Red Breast; Orangequit is know as Bluequit or Blue Badas; Barn Owl is known as White Owl or Screech Owl; and American Redstart is known as the Butterfly Bird or Christmas Bird (the males are black and red). And then there are the less intuitive names; Old Man Bird for the endemic Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, and Old Woman Bird for the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, and Mountain Witch for the Crested Quail-Dove. It was the latter bird that was the focus of my attention on this morning. Quail-Doves are always good to see; they are usually shy forest birds, which hate the sun on their backs, and so spend their days walking the dingy forest floors, where they can be tough to find. The Crested Quail-Dove, a species only found on Jamaica is no different, it fits the "standard" mould for a quail-dove: forest-dwelling, and inhabiting shady areas, which makes them hard to see well. My mission that day was not only to see one, but see one well. I had glimpsed one the day before, but could not honestly judge whether there really was magenta in its feather colours. I wanted to see that famous purlish-red colouration with my own eyes. I had a few hours only to bird the Blue Mountains, before I needed to return to Kingston to meet the arriving tour group, and so I set out from my mountain cottage at dawn, skipping breakfast as I did so.
As I walked the quiet mountain road, I heard another bird that I had never heard before but instantly knew it from its local name: John Chewit, a rendition of the call of the Black-whiskered Vireo, which I saw that morning. Endemics featured too, a coal-coloured male Jamaican Becard, a Jamaican Vireo rapidly switching between its rich array of songs, and the usual "stream" of Streamertails (Red-billed), flitting around the crop of flowers offered by the huge Blue Mahoe trees (that is Jamaica's national tree). However, several hours into the walk, when I really need to consider turning back, I was still on the trail of the "Mountain Witch", with nothing to show for it. I rounded a corner, and a burst of wingbeats caught my attention, as a bulky pigeon darted across the road, and immediately went to ground. This is the classic "MO" of quail-doves; a noisy burst of wings, a short, fast flight, quickly followed by a drop down to the ground at haste. The whole process appears rushed, as if the bird is in a mighty panic, fleeing the devil itself. The final stage involves the bird walking off at pace, deeper into the forest. Thus, the best strategy, when confronted with a quail-dove in panic mode, is to closely follow its abbreviated flight, and try to get a look at it, as it hits the ground, but before it melts back into the leaf litter, as it walks off bobbing its head as it does so. I followed this strategy to the letter that morning, although the bird was sneaky; it landed on top of a forest boulder, with no hope of following its movement on foot thereafter. So I tried another method, which works much less often with quail-doves; I played its call, even if this did feel futile. Amazingly, my call was, met with another moment of "panic" from the Crested Quail-Dove, when it burst out of the forest and shot straight down into the forest at hyper speed on my side of the road. Again, though, there was no hope of following its process on foot, as a steep bank prevented any chance of that. I tried the call several more times but was not met with either a reply from the bird, or any movement at all. My meet with the Mountain Witch had passed. I have no idea why it is called the Mountain Witch, but was beginning the believe this referred to its wraith-like existence; for it was so elusive you could question its existence altogether. After waiting at the site in hope of a miraculous reappearance, I was finally distracted by a male Yellow-shouldered Grassquit that landed right in front of me. As I changed my angle to try and photograph this gorgeous grassquit-jet black, with hay-coloured upperparts and a rust vent-my eyes met another quarry altogether, a Mountain Witch sat completely in the open on a low branch, with its crest raised and an appearance of nervousness. I feared the bird might take off with that terror-stricken flight pattern, but raised my camera quickly nonetheless. The bird settled down, appearing almost nonchalant, after my first panicked burst of shots. 
At that moment, further panic set in within me, as I heard the ever-louder buzz of a motorcycle approaching along the road. It was one of those poorly maintained bikes, with the particularly loud exhausts, which was almost certainly going to raise panic with the pigeon too. I knelt down to reach its eye level and set about shooting a series of shots before the bike was sure to push the pigeon back into the forest. To my further horror, the bike did not simply pass by, it slowed and stopped right beside me. I was completely uninterested in the reason for this, and I was only focused on taking the final parting shots of the witch. However, the owner of the poorly maintained bike was persistent; in spite of my clear lack of interest (which should have been clear seeing as my eye was firmly planted in my viewfinder, where it never wavered from, in all the time he walked up to me). Amazingly, all of this initial fuss caused not even a raised feather for the quail-dove; it remained unperturbed by the sound of the approaching bike, or the sound of a second man in its presence too. It turned out the man was interested in nothing more than touting some locally-produced Blue Mountain coffee, revered as some of the best beans in the world. His sales pitch was lost on me, a devour tea drinker, with a loathing for both the taste and smell of coffee. All too soon, the sale clearly not going to happen, he started up his bike, and left me alone again. I looked back at the branch of the Witch, almost through half closed eyes, as I could not see how it would have endured all of that noise, and was stunned to see it still sitting there in complete defiance of its timid reputation....The results of my private shoot with the legendary Mountain Witch can be seen here.




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