Most visitors seem to be drawn to Jamaica for its admittedly world-class beaches and with good reason; having enjoyed that warm, clear Caribbean from a gorgeous, white sand beach myself, I wish I had spent more time at the seaside. Yet, when I look back on my all-too-brief visit to Jamaica, my thoughts first turn to its mountains. My initial foray into Jamaica’s highlands was launched in the John Crow Mountains, named fittingly for the Turkey Vultures that watch over it. As gorgeous as they are, the John Crows (mountains, not vultures!) pale in comparison to the stunning Blue Mountains.
The Blue Mountains constitute Jamaica’s largest mountain range. Blue Mountain coffee, one of the most highly coveted coffees, not to mention expensive, coffees in the world, is grown on the lower slopes while the upper peaks, some of which exceed 7,000 feet, are heavily forested. The whole range has a deliciously Neotropical feel.
I woke up in the middle of the night in order to reach the Blue Mountains by dawn en route to my (allegedly) midday departure out of Kingston. My stalwart driver was Wayne Murdock of Attractions Link Ltd., a remarkable, hard-working man who also shows the good sense to be a birder. Wayne knew quite a bit about the Blue Mountains, including what my target birds should be. For example, he knew that we should be able to find the endemic Crested Quail-Dove tottering along the road at daybreak and sent me down one path to seek them out while he scored me some awesome organic beans (yes, coffee) from some rastas! The Crested Quail-Dove is a wondrously colored pigeon that jerks along shaded mountain paths like a drinking bird. Of course, I was thrilled to see it though my photos aren’t much to speak of!
As the sun rose, we met up with my guide, Ryan, a ranger in the Blue Mountain John Crow Mountain National Park. Then the birding really began. In short order, we reeled off both Black-faced and Yellow-shouldered Grassquits along with other expected quits, both Bananaquit and Orangequit. These well-forested slopes held plenty of Jamaican Woodpeckers, which reminded me a lot of their common North American cousin, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker.
Warblers were pleasantly profuse in the mountains. The day’s tally included Louisiana Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Black-throated Blue, American Redstart, Black and White, and lots of endemic Arrowhead Warblers. Other common songbirds seen were Jamaican Euphonia, Jamaican Spindalis, and Greater Antillean Bullfinch, gorgeous birds one and all.
Greater Antillean Bullfinch
As one might expect, I was more interested in species I hadn’t yet seen. This was my last Jamaican birding blast but there were still too many birds that had thus far eluded my gaze. For example, Jamaica has two endemic vireos, the Jamaican Vireo and Blue Mountain Vireo. Here in the Blue Mountains, I had a good shot at both but inexplicably missed the one named for the mountains I was in. I’d also missed my shot at Jamaican Crow but still had a chance to see Jamaican Blackbird. However, despite Ryan and Wayne’s best efforts, the only black bird I saw in these mountains was Smooth-billed Ani.
Time was growing short but birds became few and far between. After their initial dawn chorus, birds in the Blue Mountains quiet down. One must be patient to pick out the good birds. One such sighting was a distant White-eyed Thrush, a much rarer endemic Turdus thrush than the ubiquitous White-chinned Thrush.
Another great stroke of luck was a silent Rufous-throated Solitaire perched in tree below us. John Fletcher of BirdLife Jamaica had mentioned to me how the solitaire was not the dull gray depicted in the field guides but rather a rich navy blue. How right he was. While solitaires are usually known for their haunting calls, this species is a true stunner.
I was eager to at least add Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo, Jamaican Becard, or the more common Myiarchus flycatchers to my trip list but such was not my fate. Instead I got great looks at Jamaican Elaenia, a flycatcher that reminds me a bit of Chipping Sparrow…
…and American Kestrel, a much brighter subspecies than the one I’m used to…
…and Olive-throated Parakeet, Jamaican Tody, White-crowned Pigeon, Zenaida Dove, Loggerhead Kingbird, and both Red-billed Streamertail and Vervain Hummingbird. But alas, all too soon, our day was done and the road to Kingston beckoned.
A view of Kingston from the Blue Mountains
As we drove towards the airport, passing active flocks of Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and Royal Terns, I reviewed species seen and unseen. The bad news was that I’d left many Jamaican endemics on the table. The good news, however, is that I enjoyed Jamaica so much, particularly those incredible Blue Mountains, that I’ll be happy to return to pick up the rest! When you visit Jamaica (staying at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill of course), don’t just stick to the coast; the mountains will truly amaze you.