Jamaica: The Caribbean Introtour

The Caribbean is sometimes regarded as a difficult place to bird, with endemics scattered across a wide range of islands, thus appearing like a tricky region to cover in a short spell. Jamaica is contrary to this “rule”; it is a small island (smaller even than the US state of Connecticut), with 29 endemic bird species all of its own. In general, Jamaican birding is easy going, so that even in a short trip of this nature, there is a realistic chance of seeing them all. This is done by focusing on the two main birding areas on the island, which are both located in eastern Jamaica; the Blue Mountains, and the infamous Ecclesdown Road in the parish of Portland. As both of these areas are beautiful and appealing in their own right, this is also a tour where you can bring your non-birding partner; the Blue Mountains is the perfect getaway to relax in and sample their world famous coffee, while Port Antonio offers the classic picture book beaches of the Caribbean that have drawn non-birders there for years. If you have limited vacation time, we have scheduled this so that only 4 working days are needed to join this tour.

Therefore, Jamaica offers easy birding, 29 birds found nowhere else, and the opportunity to take your non-birding partner with you, on a tour with minimum vacation time required. It is hard to find a snag!


Day 1: Arrival in Kingston. After arrival in Jamaica’s capital, you will be transferred to a quiet, safe, and comfortable hotel on the outskirts of the city, where we will spend one night. For those who arrive at the hotel by early afternoon, there will be some birding available on this afternoon, close to Kingston, where our first endemics/near endemics like Jamaican Tody, White-chinned Thrush, and Jamaican Oriole may all feature.

Jamaican Tody is often nominated as the bird of the trip!
Jamaican Tody is often nominated as the bird of the trip! (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Hellshire Hills & Hope Gardens to the Blue Mountains. Our Jamaican tour will begin in earnest, with a pre-dawn start to ensure we make it the short distance to Hellshire Hills a short time after dawn, before the intense Caribbean heat makes the place unpleasant to bird. We should need only a short time here to find a few key birds; most notably Bahama Mockingbird, which has just two small populations on the island. Another target on site will be the Stolid Flycatcher that is locally common, but the iridescent colors of the endemic Jamaican Mango are sure to leave a more lasting impression!

Jamaica's national bird: Red-billed Streamertail
Jamaica's national bird: Red-billed Streamertail (Sam Woods)

Moving on from Hellshire Hills, we will move into the city, and to the tranquil enclave of Hope Gardens (located near the rainbow-colored Bob Marley Museum), where parrots will be on the agenda; this site provides the best chance on the tour for the endemic, and handsome Yellow-billed Parrot. While there we may also find the newly named Jamaican Parakeet (an endemic species just recently split off from the widespread Olive-throated Parakeet).

Jamaican-Lizard-Cuckoo; with lizard!
Jamaican-Lizard-Cuckoo; with lizard! (Sam Woods)

After lunch in a quiet suburb of Kingston, we shall head north into the pleasantly cool Blue Mountains, an area famed for production of some of the most revered coffee in the World, and also one of the ultimate sites for endemic birds on Jamaica. In the afternoon, we will check in to the serene surroundings of our mountain chalet, which comes equipped with busy bird feeders, and endemic birds right in their well-manicured garden. We will spend two nights at a comfortable chalet in the Blue Mountains.

Jamaican Owl is one of only 2 owl species on the island
Jamaican Owl is one of only 2 owl species on the island (Sam Woods)

Day 3: The Blue Mountains. A full day will be spent birding in one of the most idyllic locations in Jamaica, the Blue Mountains. Here the habitat is montane forest at an elevation of some 4000ft/1225m, which provides not only streams of endemic species (all but a few of the endemic birds can be found there), but also a pleasing climate, in sharp contrast to the heat and humidity of Kingston and other lowland coastal sites. Our target here will be to amass more than 20 of the endemic species, including some of the scarcer ones, for which this represents arguably the best site on the island, like Jamaican Blackbird (a strange, bromeliad-loving forest icterid), Crested Quail-Dove, and the well-named Blue Mountain Vireo. Some of the more common endemic birds include the hulking Ring-tailed Pigeon that regularly pass overhead; Jamaican Pewee, which regular flit from their regular perches; White-chinned Thrush that often hops on and off the dirt roads that cuts through the mountain, and the super Jamaican Tody, which, by voice, appears to be around every corner!

Jamaican Woodpecker is the only resident woodpecker on the island
Jamaican Woodpecker is the only resident woodpecker on the island (Sam Woods)

Our mountain chalet comes with a small set of sugar feeders, which attract one of Jamaica’s most famous birds. Known locally as the “Doctor Bird”, the Red-billed Streamertail, is Jamaica’s national bird, proudly adorning roads signs, and tourist paraphernalia, this is the most regular visitor to the chalet’s feeders, located on a balcony overlooking their well-managed garden. Other birds that may drop in for the “sugar harvest”, include Jamaican Oriole, the endemic Orangequit, Yellow-faced Grassquit, the ubiquitous Bananaquit, and perhaps too a wintering American warbler or two. Among the other endemic targets will be Jamaican Becard, Sad Flycatcher, the stunning Jamaican Spindalis, and Arrow-headed Warbler. At night we can take the chance to search for a Jamaican Owl or Northern Potoo too.

Crested Quail-Dove is frequently the trickiest of the endemics
Crested Quail-Dove is frequently the trickiest of the endemics (Sam Woods)

Day 4: The Blue Mountains to Port Antonio. We will have a final morning in the Blue Mountains to search for any “missing” endemics we might still need like the subdued Jamaican Elaenia, the chocolate-headed White-eyed Thrush, or striking Yellow-shouldered Grassquit (not your average grassquit for sure with its saffron back, burnt red vent, and coal black underside), before we move up to the north coast, some two hours drive away.

Jamaican Orioles sometimes drop onto the feeders in our mountain chalet
Jamaican Orioles sometimes drop onto the feeders in our mountain chalet (Sam Woods)

The final two nights of the tour will be spent in a scenic coastal resort outside of the chilled-out city of Port Antonio in northeast Jamaica. If we have not found one already, we shall go in search of Northern Potoo, and Jamaican Owl at night.

Another idyllic bay in Jamaica
Another idyllic bay in Jamaica (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Happy Grove and the Ecclesdown Road. Our day will start with a pre-dawn drive out to a headland, where sheer cliffs loom over an aquamarine Caribbean Sea. It is these cliffs that are the attraction for another bird, which will be our main target for the start of the day – the elegant White-tailed Tropicbird. For much of the year the tropicbird is pelagic, staying well offshore and out of sight from prying birder’s eyes. However, at this time of year they come to shore to nest on the cliffs, when they often be seen well as they swoop on to their cliffside nesting ledges, just beneath our feet. As the birds often spend long periods of the day out at sea, we will time our visit for the early morning, when they are usually most reliably seen.

Two impressive endemic cuckoos can be found in Jamaica
Two impressive endemic cuckoos can be found in Jamaica (Sam Woods)

The rest of the day will focus on the lowland forests and woods at the base of the John Crow Mountains, alongside the Ecclesdown Road. This is one of the most famous birding destinations in Jamaica and can lay claim to hosting every single one of Jamaica’s endemic birds. Therefore, it provides a backup site for any that may have been missed in the Blue Mountains (which is still a necessary site for some of these, providing the optimum chances for species like Blue Mountain Vireo, Crested Quail-Dove, and Jamaican Blackbird); but is also the only good site on the tour for the Black-billed Parrot, the local Black-billed Streamertail (that is confined to the northeast of Jamaica), and Jamaican Crow, (which is strangely absent from southern Jamaica).

During the last leg of the trip, we shall search for White-tailed Tropicbirds at their nesting cliffs
During the last leg of the trip, we shall search for White-tailed Tropicbirds at their nesting cliffs (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Port Antonio to Kingston for departure. After some final few hours of birding near Port Antonio, we will drive back to Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston for early afternoon departures (or later).

The entire suite of endemic birds can be found on the Ecclesdown Road
The entire suite of endemic birds can be found on the Ecclesdown Road (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed. While early starts are required (in order to take advantage of the cooler temperatures in the early mornings), this is an easy-going tour, with regular breaks in the middle of the day. Typically breakfasts and departures are around 5:30am and 6:00am, respectively. On day 2 a departure of 5:30am is required, with breakfast taken in the field; another field breakfast is required on day 5; all lunches and dinners are at the hotel or in restaurants. The drives on this trip are easy, with 2 drives of 90 minutes on days 2 and 5, and one 3-hour drive on day 6.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. The walking on this trip is easy, with no steep or difficult hikes. All of the walks are on roads, which are mostly flat with only small inclines. There are no very high altitudes visited on this trip, with 3 days spent in the coastal lowlands, and 3 days spent in the Blue Mountains, reaching a maximum of 5000ft/1500m elevation.

CLIMATE: Jamaica is generally hot and humid, although a little cooler, and much less humid, in the Blue Mountains. In the lowland areas of the trip (days 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6) humidity is often high, at around 75%. Temperatures in these same areas is usually in the 80s °F/26°C+. On three days of the tour we will be visiting sites in the Blue Mountains (days 2, 3 and 4), where low cloud, rain, and lower temperatures are more likely (sometimes down to 50s°F/10°C+), and so rain gear is required, and some cooler weather clothing for the unpredictable weather in mountains. Although the weather is unpredictable in the mountains, and rain can occur at any time, the tour is timed during a season of low rainfall.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent; all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24hr electricity. Wi-Fi Internet is also available at all of the places stayed.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, and so that the focus is on finding the endemic birds. However, casual photographers will have good photo opps. at the feeders in the Blue Mountains, where Red-billed Streamertails are regular visitors. In general the “on-the-fly” photo opportunities in Jamaica are good, with subjects like the stunning Jamaican Tody often being co-operative.

WHEN TO GO: Jamaica can be birded year round. However, the December-April period is ideal as it the temperatures are lower at that time, and it is within the driest period of the year. This avoids the uncomfortable, hottest months of June-August, and also the rainiest months of the year, May and October.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay, and have at least one blank page available. Visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, and the UK. For people of other nationalities, please check with your local Jamaican embassy/consulate. If you are traveling from an area where Yellow Fever is know to occur, a valid certificate of vaccination is required, and will need to be shown on entry-this will not apply to most people.

Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and hotel/lodge staff (excluding for baggage carriers); accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 5; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 6; safe drinking water throughout; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on the official arrival and departure dates, (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 6 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters used anywhere; international flights; any visa or passport fees incurred; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.