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Jamaica – 30 endemics, palm fringed golden beaches and rum punch

…fine birding and much safer than you might have been led to believe…

Guests who are birders scarcely need to step outside their comfortable, airy rooms at Hotel Mockingbird Hill to be thrilled by the morning chorus. Field Guides, Inc., has always stayed with Shireen, Barbara, and crew, and we have always had marvellous birding (and dining!) experiences here. The quality of the birding here rivals that of virtually any other place I can think of on the island, and I look forward to returning there annually.Before dawn, we`ve heard both Barn Owl and Jamaican Owl calling on the hotel grounds, and Jamaican Potoo is also a possibility (heard once here). As the day dawns, one can look out over the pool from two porches, with a view all the way down to the Caribbean toward Port Antonio, and have Loggerhead and (in spring) Gray Kingbirds bickering, Black-whiskered Vireos and White-chinned Thrushes serenading, Rufous-tailed and Sad Flycatchers hunting, and on many occasions both (!) Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo and Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo on their searches for lizards!Those who have struggled to see some of these handsome species at other sites will appreciate how easy it is to see birds in this wonderful patch of habitat, which is really the northernmost extension of the John Crow Mountains--ornithologically speaking, a very remote and relatively unknown set of mountains. Most of Jamaica`s widespread endemic species (Jamaican Oriole, Spindalis, Euphonia, Woodpecker, Tody, Bananaquit, Vireo) can be seen from the porches, with few exceptions, and the entire island`s pan-Caribbean or Antillean species are here or nearby.A glance over at the "Poor Man`s" Orchid Tree, overhanging the pool, invariably (even in drought times) provides stunning views of one of Jamaica`s scarcest birds, the Black-billed Streamertail. This species, recently split from the national bird (Red-billed Streamtertail, or "Doctorbird" locally) after the careful research of German ornithologists, appears to be declining throughout its range in north easternmost Jamaica, probably the result of habitat destruction, but possibly also because themore aggressive Red-billed is moving into its range (we now see Red-billeds on the eastern side of the John Crows, in places like Alligator Church and Millbank). The Orchid Tree also provides good opportunities for photographing (at eye-level!) Jamaican Mangos, a beautiful endemic hummingbird whose colours complement those of the tree. There are a few other sites where one can hope to see Black-billed Streamertail (around San-San and the like), but I know of no other place that is so reliable, much less so attractive and hospitable. All of our tours have enjoyed their first Black-billed Streamertail and a rum punch simultaneously!A morning`s walk around the grounds in winter will usually give birders unparalleled looks at Ring-tailed Pigeons in the large fig tree in the parking lot. This species can also be present in spring (trips here in January, February, and April have never missed it here), but it likely retires into the John Crows to breed during the warmest months. As Jamaican birders will tell you, Ring-tailed Pigeon can be a tough species to see well, even in its strongholds in the Cockpit Country. Visitors to Jamaica, even those on organized tours, frequently miss the species altogether, so all would be advised to stay at Mockingbird Hill to enjoy them here; the colours of the neck feathers are incredible.Also in the morning, take a look over by the compost heap, just back from the parking lot. Here, Ruddy Quail-Doves, sometimes with young just out of the nest in April, come to feed on orange seeds and other goodies in the compost.This is yet another advantage of staying in a hotel that is ecologically sensitive! Small numbers of wintering wood-warblers (Black-throated Blue, American Redstart, Black-throated Green, Worm-eating, Northern Parula, and many more) have been noted all around the hotel, and Swainson`s is likely in some of the thicker habitat down the road toward town. In afternoon, a leisurely watch from the porch is likely to produce flocks of Black and White-collared Swifts just below cloud level. We have sought Caribbean Martins here as well, so far without luck, but it may be that we come too early in the year for them. If you come here to bird, ask one of the proprietors for their bird list; you might even add a new "yard list" species!A bit farther afield, toward Port Antonio, keep an eye out for the handsome Cuban Kestrel, currently considered a subspecies, recognizable because it hasa dark morph utterly unlike Jamaican kestrels; its crown and back are steely blue-gray. These Cuban birds were unknown in Jamaica until blown over by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Down toward Hector`s River (an hour away, more or less), keep an eye out for Mangrove Cuckoo, which we have seen right in town in Manchioneal. Right across from the school in Hector`s River, White-tailed Tropicbirds can be seen with a few minutes of patient sea watching as they come back to their cliff nests. Cuban Kestrels also nest in the bell tower here and are pretty reliably seen in late winter and spring.If you venture into the John Crow Mountains, be prepared for rain (it is one of the rainiest places on earth!) and for bumpy roads, but the birding can be quite good along roads; consider an off-road hike with Valley Hikes, too. We`ve had Chestnut-sided Warbler, Swainson`s Warbler, and (once) Bicknell`s Thrush in these mountains, and Yellow-billed Parrots are relatively common here (we once found an erythristic one, virtually red over the entire body, near the national park office). Keep an eye out for Giant Swallowtail, a critically endangered endemic butterfly, in the area. For the even more adventurous, consider chartering a boat off Port Antonio to look for pelagic seabirds, especially in spring, during the migration. The shelf is very narrow here, and upwellings (with groups of seabirds and cetaceans) are more likely here than elsewhere off Jamaica`s coast. Who knows? Maybe you`ll be the first person in 125 years to see a Jamaican Petrel, now considered extinct, but?In short, any serious itinerary for birding Jamaica should include the Hotel Mockingbird Hill and vicinity, along with the Blue Mountains, Cockpit Country, the Black River (for Yellow-breasted Crake), and the central-southern coast (for those looking for the endemic Hill`s race of Bahama Mockingbird and the endemic exigua race of Plain Pigeon).When we birders stop to consider, too, that Barbara, Shireen, and their staff have considered so carefully the impact of the hotel on the environment and have worked to ensure that their business is as ecologically friendly as is possible, I think we realize the natural allegiance that we have to their hotel and the few others like it. And did I mention that their chef is a genius, by any standard…?Ned Brinkley - Professional birding tour guide - Field Guides, Incorporated - Austin, TexasAnother visitor extolling the same virtues? said:
The island of Jamaica has an astonishing 28 endemic species of birds, not to mention its host of multi-island endemics and neo-tropical migrants. I always relish the opportunity to relax and bird at the Hotel Mockingbird Hill. Where else can one soak up the warm Caribbean sun, a cool drink inhand and observe such spectacular birds like the Black-billed Streamertail right from your veranda! Actually, well over half of Jamaica`s endemic birds can be seen at or on the surrounding grounds of the hotel. A day drive to the nearby Blue Mountains gives you the chance to clean up on the remaining specialty birds as well as experience the true beauty of Jamaica`s interior.

Allan Sander - Co-author of A Photographic Guide to Birds of the West Indies, Ralph Curtis Publishing, Inc.

4th July 2014