08 April 2015

In the Shadow of James Bond...JAMAICA (27th March)

Continuing our tour in Jamaica, we moved out of the coffee-plated highlands, and the Blue Mountains, and onto the lowlands of the north coast. We moved into Port Antonio in the parish of Portland. Ian Fleming was a fan of both Jamaica, and birds, so he "stole" his hero's name from a famous Caribbean ornithologist named "James Bond". The works of James Bond continued to "steal" from Jamaica, with a later film being titled after the name of a famous resort in Jamaica: Goldeneye (which is also, coincidentally a bird name too!)
Once we had reached the north coast our avian objectives were clear; we were missing only 3 of the 29 endemics on the island by this stage: Jamaican Crow (which, for a crow, seems remarkably picky; on an island lacking any other crow, it is confined to the north of the island); Black-billed Streamertail (which is separated from the Red-billed Streamertail by all of a two-minute bird flight across the Rio Grande River!); and Black-billed Parrot. On top of the endemic, we also had a rather graceful seabird to take sight of too, with White-tailed Tropicbirds known to breed along the north coast.
In the morning we took a drive out from Port Antonio; a city with a distinctly laid back Caribbean feel, feeling like a sleepy town, not a city as such, to the wonderfully named Happy Grove. However, on arriving at the site and seeing no large white shapes cruising the bay, we were anything but happy; where were the expected tropicbirds!? They were said to be better in the early mornings, and so here we were, but there were no signs of white birds in the bay. We split up and scanned a wider area, when suddenly they began to appear; first one White-tailed Tropicbird appeared, wraith-like, amd swept onto the cliff, where it tucked itself into a hole, a presumed nest spot. Scanning further produced up to 8 more birds, swirling around the bay, with several birds chasing each other, in an ancient, well-versed, courtship ritual. Relief was palpable. With that, and staggering views of these oceanic "ballet dancers" (they seem somehow more graceful and elegant than most other seafaring birds); we moved to one of Jamaica's most famous birding sites, the Ecclesdown Road. 
Within twenty minutes of our arrival some emerald green shapes in the treetops were lined up in our scope, and a second of our targets was achieved, good looks at Black-billed Parrots. Later that morning several Jamaican Crows set off an alarm for us, when they passed overhead giving off their stranges, quite un-crow-like calls as they did so. However, try as we might, a male Black-billed Streamertail simply refused to show. They are said to be common and conspicuous at this site, which made us feel nothing short of blind. Only momentary glimpses of a couple of non-streamered females were all we were rewarded for our focused efforts. Enough was enough, desperate times called for desperate measures; we went to a local hotel with feeders! Within seconds of our arrival we had a male Black-billed Streamertail in our bins, buzzing around reception, while a Jamaican Mango fed in the well-trimmed garden alongside! The Full Monty of Jamaican Endemics had been achieved, and we were free to return to our James Bond books and relax!

07 April 2015

Feeding time in Coffee Country...JAMAICA (25th March)

A full day was spent in "Coffee Country", AKA the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. The Blue Mountains are best known for some of the most expensive, and arguably best, coffee on the planet. However, we were not here for beans, but birds, and the area is brimming with these too. During the morning I got my lifer Caribbean Dove, while another in the group got his lifer Crested Quail-Dove (my fourth and final of this Jamaica trip); in addition to those birds we finally tracked down a Jamaican Blackbird, and also got jaw dropping looks at a male Yellow-shouldered Grassquit, another of the bevy of endemic birds to found on this Caribbean isle.
With most of our Blue Mountains targets bagged by lunchtime, we were free to have a siesta, and to relax around our wonderful mountain chalet over lunch. I often do hard core birding tour, with little time to relax, with the real risk of missing birds in doing so. Thus, it was nice for a change and a more relaxed birding style, that the Caribbean demands. While others slept, I put my camera to work, as the feeders at the Starlight Chalet are superb. Just two feeders offer brown sugar water to hummingbirds and others, but in spite of lowly numbers of feeders (compared with, say, some Ecuadorian or Peruvian lodges), they were nothing of not busy and active with a procession of hungry birds....
The most regular "feeder bird" was also Jamaica's national bird, the iconic Red-billed Streamertail. Following hot on its heels were plentiful Bananaquits, with the odd Orangequit (also known locally as Bluequit or Blue Badas) for good measure too. Every so often a male Yellow-faced Grassquit would pop in too, while a pair of Jamaican Orioles held centre stage when they arrived, in dramatic fashion, on and off over several hours glued to the chalet's balcony. Also on the agenda were warblers too, with Prairie Warbler and a female Black-throated Blue Warbler showing their faces several times. This was a great way to "relax" (i.e. getting stressed at the missed photo opportunities, when I missed a bird sneak in behind me!) The chalet garden proved fruitful too, that morning a super confiding Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, a real bruiser of a bird, loafed above the vegetable garden, while Sad Flycatchers picked insects off the chalet walls.

It was a great day, topped off with another encounter with the same young Jamaican Owl from a few days before, but also an adult too, for good measure...

06 April 2015

Welcome to Hell!...JAMAICA (24th March)

The first, full, day of the Jamaica tour started in the dry scrubby coastal hills of Hellshire Hills, just west of Kingston. It's not often people take mockingbirds seriously, but here is one place that they are taken in that manner; as there is a rare endemic race of Bahama Mockingbird, an endemic Caribbean species shared with only the Bahamas and Cuba. It turns out though, go with the right people, to the right place, and even this Jamaican "rarity" is not so hard to find. Before we had even reached the main area for them, we had a singing bird in the bag. The local name for Northern Mockingbird on Jamaica is simply "Nightingale", and so for the Bahama they labelled it "Spanish Mockingbird", although I am not sure why; it's song is no more Spanish sounding than the song of the Northern!
Also of avian importance to us at Hellshire, was another endemic, a coppery hummingbird known as Jamaican Mango, several of which gave themselves up easily; and also a flycatcher, which in spite of the name seemed spritely, animated and full of emotion as it zipped about picking white butterflies out of the air; Stolid Flycatcher, another Caribbean specialty.
As "Hell" began to heat up, we retreated into the city of Kingston, visiting the tranquil surrounds of Hope Gardens, passing the rainbow-coloured Bob Marley Museum en-route. The calm settings of the gardens are in stark contrast to the usual hubbub of city life going on right outside the gates. Numerous flowering shrubs hosted numerous Red-billed Streamertails, Jamaica's proud national bird, and the tiny Vervain Hummingbird also got a look in too. Vervain Hummingbird would be a lot more famous were it not for a certain Bee Hummingbird from Cuba; were it not for that species it could clai the title of world's smallest bird, measuring an astonishing 5cm. Put another way, a standard pencil is TEN times longer than this miniscule bird! But, no one ever remembers who came in second, and so while the Bee Hummingbird gets all the plaudits (in spite of most of them, except the very smallest males, measuring the exact same amount as the Vervain), the Vervain is resigned to always being the "bridesmaid"! Aside from that the well-kept park gave us two endemic parrots; Yellow-billed Parrot and the newly "minted" Jamaican Parakeet (only recently split from Olive-throated in a 2014 paper).
In the afternoon, after a lunch with a female Cape May Warbler and a Black-faced Grassquit as tableside companions, we move on up into the Blue Mountains, where we were greeted with heavy rain. Once the rain had moved in though, a flurry of endemics and specialties followed: Rufous-throated Solitaire, Blue Mountain Vireo, another Crested Quail-Dove, and a superb, confiding Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, the latter being my standout moment of the afternoon. The reason for this? A lizard-cuckoo clasping a newly caught lizard in its bill was Top Trumps for me!

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.

03 April 2015

Doctor Birds & Friends...JAMAICA (22nd March)

I visited the feeders of Starlight Chalet in the Blue Mountains, and there was where I got the killer looks at "Doctor Birds", or Red-billed Streamertails that any sane birder would desire. Along with the streamertails, the feeders attracted a female Black-throated Blue Warbler, several super Bananaquits, and some skittish Orangequits (from an endemic genus to Jamaica). 
In the afternoon, I glimpsed my first Crested Quail-Dove, which left me gagging for more, the bird soon evaporating, as only quail-doves can, back into the forest undergrowth. Better luck was had with the dowdy Greater Antillean Elaenia, before we needed to retreat from the rain, which moved in hard and fast. Once the rain had moved on we walked the quiet mountain road that cuts through the Blue Mountains, searching for one of the least common, and odd, endemic birds: Jamaican Blackbird. Most blackbirds of the Icterid family (shared with orioles and grackles) are birds of open country, and are typically seen in noisy groups. However, here is where Jamaican Blackbird breaks the rule; it from an endemic, and distinctly odd, genus; it is usually seen alone, and is forest bird, most often seen foraging in bromeliads, something any self-respecting grackle would be unlikely to do. By the end of the afternoon we had tracked down two of these inconspicuous birds, which rounded out a great day in Jamaica's scenic Blue Mountains.

An array of birds and endemics was sandwiched either side of the rain, from the dowdy and inconspicuous like Blue Mountain Vireo, to the dowdy and conspicuous, like Jamaican Pewee and Loggerhead Kingbird , to the gaudy and conspicuous, like Jamaican Spindalis...a few of which are shown here.
More from Jamaica's "coffee-plated" Blue Mountains to follow...

02 April 2015

Welcome to the Family....JAMAICA (22nd March)

Having bagged the Jamaican Owl the evening before, a pressure valve had been released, but all the same I woke up with eager enthusiasm in anticipation of the floodgates being opened for Jamaican endemics.
I walked out of the cottage door and immediately ran into Jamaica's national bird, the so-called "Doctor Bird" or Red-billed Streamertail. This may sound spectacular, and indeed one look at an image of this stellar bird proves it is; it is daubed in glistening emerald greens, topped with a black cap and crest, and has a tail formed of two delicate streamers twice as long as the body; this is all capped off with a bright carrot orange beak. Hummingbirds are a spectacular family of over 300 species, and this is right up there with the best of them. However, in spite of my waxing lyrical about this species, my first sight of it was met with nothing but disappointment. It's not that I am hard to please, but my eyes met with a male missing its namesake streamers. It would have to better than that! Luckily by the end of the morning, my disappointment had already turned to exhilaration, as I clapped eyes on several fully-plumed males at some feeders.

However, I am moving ahead of myself; moving into the cottage garden I found a tree in bloom, which was literally thronging with birds of all shapes and sizes: warblers flitted among its branches, including Prairie and Black-throated Blue, and Northern ParulaThree species of grassquit were present too: Yellow-faced, Black-faced and the endemic Yellow-shouldered too. Larger birds shuffled within its yellow-flowered limbs, with both the common White-chinned Thrush, as well as its scarcer chocolate-headed relative, the White-eyed Thrush. Not long after I gaped at my first of many Jamaican Woodpeckers for the day. Moving out onto the road, we birded in and around an area called "Section", a simple name reflecting its location at an intersection! 

Not long after, another couple of endemics rolled into view: Jamaican Becard and Sad Flycatcher (which appeared anything but sad, as it playfully plucked insects out of the air!); however the moment the word "TODY" passed out of Ricardo's lips, I failed to hear anything. I had yearned to see a tody, ANY tody, for a number of years. Not only would it be a completely new bird family for me, but the Jamaican Tody is a tiny bird, charming, and nothing short of gorgeous, if that is considered the highest level of beauty. It is the size of a kinglet or Goldcrest, but is shaped like a kingfisher, with a long bill and short suat body lacking any substantial tail to it. However, the ornate colouring makes it particularly special. It is for the most part bright "parakeet" green, with a pinkish bill, gaudy vermilion throat patch, and washed with rose pink on its sides. It was every bit as stunning in real life as it was in books; while it had leapt off the pages of the book on first seeing it there, on first seeing it in life it burnt itself onto my retina. There were many interesting birds that morning, like the endemic Arrowhead Warbler, and even other ones that could be considered gorgeous, like the orange-breasted Jamaican Spindalis, but nothing could top the tody!

That was just the start of the day, more from this day, a headliner by Jamaican standards to come...

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...