01 April 2015

The Land of Wood, Water...and Owls! (JAMAICA) 21st March

I left the Andes of Ecuador behind, and flew via Miami to Kingston in Jamaica, for my first Caribbean birding trip. I was excited on many levels; there are up to (dependent on taxonomy) 29 endemic birds on Jamaica; I had grown up listening to something Jamaica is rightly famous for, reggae music (my late father had a reggae-themed record store-in the days of vinyl-named "Hard Times"); and on top of all of that one of those endemic birds I would be chasing, also represented an entirely new family for me, and one I wanted badly, the Todies.

I arrived in Kingston and met up with my local guide, Ricardo Miller. He was dressed in street clothes and I was a little intimidated in my birding attire, next to his cool appearance; cool is something Jamaicans do well, (relative to me anyway!) After some shopping, and my first taste of jerk chicken, a traditional mildly spicy Jamaican dish, we were soon leaving Kingston in the rear view mirror. There were many things during this brief Caribbean sojourn that had me thinking back to days long gone by, and my youth. The reggae music, brought memories of my father, and the drumming beats that would dominate our house in my childhood years; and the mere name of the capital city too, as I was born in the English town of Kingston-upon-Thames. Of course, many Jamaican names bear the brunt of years of British colonial rule, and passing through the army base of Newcastle, as we ascended into the Blue Mountains that afternoon, reminded me again of that.

My afternoon arrival left me a little resigned to the fact that the tap of endemics would not really be opened until the next day; although in just a few hours of  daylight I was proved very wrong. As this was my first Caribbean forray, I was looking for lifers outside of the Jamaican endemic birds too, with some wider Caribbean species also likely. Indeed, the first of these came while going for jerk chicken, right in the heart of Kingston; a colony of Antillean Palm Swifts were present in the mall car park, and my first lifer in Jamaica was readily notched up. Filled up with jerk, we headed up into the Blue Mountains, and as we climbed a large, lumbering shape was seen loping along a branch; I recognised the motion well, as I had seen Squirrel Cuckoos do this many times. However, there are no Squirrel Cuckoos in Jamaica. it turned out to be a bird known to Jamaicans as the "Old Man Bird", better known to birders as Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, a spectacular endemic species the size of a Gyrfalcon. It was a good bird to get as one of the first endemics! Aside from that a bird known locally as "Hopping Dick", appropriately hopped on and off the road-White-chinned Thrush.  
When I left for Jamaica my good friend Lee Dingain had laid down a challenge to go and photograph the Jamaican Owl. I was up for the challenge, but even in my wildest dreams did not expect to meet the challenge on my first night! As the veil of darkness was half-drawn, as we neared the tiny hamlet of Section, a piercing scream came out of the forest. Now, Jamaican Owls are known for their haunting calls, well deserved of any horror movie, although they do not scream. Indeed, their ghastly calls have lent them to be regarded as bad luck if heard on your property. However, the call sounded eerily like a young Long-eared Owl, and so I guessed it was a young owl. Jamaica only has 2 owl species in total, and knowing this was not the call of the Barn Owl, the Jamaican Owl was firmly on the table. Trouble was I was far from ready; my binoculars were out, and poised, but both my flashlight and camera were still packed in the boot. I daren't scan for the bird until my camera was "in position", and so I pulled out my torch, loaded the batteries, and slung my camera over my shoulder. That sounds quick, but it felt like an age when a young owl calls and calls nearby! Once I was ready I begun scanning the trees beside the road, and not long after my beam fell on a ginger-colored figure sat on a branch, a superb Jamaican Owl, which led to my very first bird photo in Jamaica; I was more than happy with that!!!

More from Jamaica's Blue Mountains to follow...


Lee Dingain said...

What can I say? Challenge met head on! Really fantastic pics and I really want to go and see this bird now.

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