Jamaica is not devoid of wildlife but much of the diminishing native fauna is shy and scarce, like the Hutia similar in looks to a guineapig. Jamaican Boa one of seven snake species none of which are venomous and six of which are endemic, for example is hard to find. The marine life is still plentiful but the most interesting species like Caribbean Crocodile and Manatee are not easy to locate. With luck one might see dolphins and turtles and the fish are plentiful and colourful. More easily seen are some of the wonderful and colourful butterflies of which there are around 150 species including the fantastic giant swallowtail.
But, despite its sometimes roguish image Jamaica is a beautiful, accessible birding country, with a range of locations as inebriating as the rum, and more than thirty great endemic birds.
The total number of recorded species is approximately 300, many of which are winter migrants from North America, 100 plus local breeding birds and 26-30 [depending on what you split] endemics.
Finding the endemics can be dead easy – the Red-billed Streamertail is present in virtually every flower-laden garden – to very difficult – the Jamaican Blackbird feeds exclusively on the creatures living in bromeliads. But with reasonable luck all can be found in a few days, visiting half-a-dozen easily accessible sites.
Good local guides are available – but try to make arrangements ahead of your visit – local transport is available at reasonable cost [from a 4-seater car up to a 25-seater bus] and a wide range of accommodation choices can be provided.
A few suggestions:
Roads are not well signposted and local driving habits are atrocious, so if possible use a driver.
Be prepared for sun, rain, and high humidity – hats, sun block, light rain gear and a change of shirt are recommended.
In general – and especially out of the city – people, though initially reserved, will respond positively to your friendliness. Don’t be shy to ask for directions, but be prepared for some vague answers with distances often given in chains!
Local food and drink can be one more facet of your adventure – but take it easy – especially with the Jerked pork and chicken which is very, very hot!
The weather – birding can be done all year, but – bearing in mind that May and October are the rainy months, June to August the hottest – the most comfortable time is likely to be December to April.
Black River Morass (Map) – wetland
This is a large wetland containing a variety of habitats. The northern part is probably the best place to find the endangered West Indian Whistling Duck. The southern area is open riverine country with herons, bitterns, rails and some friendly crocodiles.
Blue Mountains (Map)
Drive north out of Kingston up, up, up, through Newcastle and Hardwar Gap, and stop on the roadside almost anywhere. Look for all three hummingbirds, Blue Mountain and Jamaican Vireos, various Flycatchers, Todies, Orioles, Stripe-headed Tanagers and many more. This is prime Blue Mountain coffee territory, and much of the limited accommodation is connected with coffee interests. A comfortable and attractive base is Forres Park Guest House at Mavis Bank, one hour’s drive from Kingston’s airport.
Castleton Botanical Gardens (Map)
One hour’s drive out of Kingston on the Junction Road. About 20 acres of open rolling country with a variety of exotic trees that attract an interesting range of birds.
Cockpit Country – Barbecue Bottom/ Burnt Hill Road (Map)
This fabled area contains some of the richest birding in the island, but it is mostly trackless and inaccessible. The Barbecue Bottom road is the best area close to the Cockpit Country that can be reached by car. Look for both Parrots, Jamaican Blackbirds, Crested and Ruddy Quail Doves and both Chestnut-bellied and Jamaican Lizard Cuckoos. The choice of lodging is limited- beach hotels and villas on the north coast or rustic but clean and friendly, B&B’s in Albert Town, which is a useful base for any foray into the Cockpit area.
Hope Botanical Gardens – Kingston (Map)
A possible site to visit en route from Kingston to the Blue Mountains. A flock of about 40 Yellow-Billed Parrots live in the Gardens and are easily seen; plus warblers and water birds in the ponds.
John Crow Mountains (Ecclesdown) (Map)
The Eastern face of the John Crow Mountains are best accessed from the narrow but good road through Ecclesdown. Look for Black-billed Streamertails, both Amazon parrots [Yellow-billed and Black-billed] Jamaican Blackbird, Jamaican Crow, Crested Quail-Dove, Arrow-marked Warbler etc. etc.
Marshall’s Pen – near Mandeville (Map)
One of the best-documented and oldest birding sites in Jamaica, home of Robert and Ann Sutton – two of the country’s premier birders – and the oldest active banding centre in Jamaica. Robert birded this area all his life and knew every nest and roost on it. He recorded over 100 species there. Since his tragic murder some years ago his widow, Ann Haynes-Sutton has continued there work. Accommodation is available on site and there are alternatives in Mandeville.
Mockingbird Hill Hotel Gardens & Green Castle Estate Grounds
Undoubtedly some of the best birding sites in Jamaica is a stay at one of these hotels just for sumptuous breakfasts and wonderful dinners. Better still the gardens have hosted all but a few endemic species and sub-species.
Royal Palm Reserve – near Negril
A managed but little-visited wetland on the Negril/ Savannah-la-Mar road, with a good selection of birds in an attractive setting. Boardwalk and viewing tower to add to one’s convenience. The Great Morass in Negril, Jamaica is a large nature preserve for birds and animals. It is located off of the land side of Norman Manley Boulevard, stretching along for 7 miles parallel to Long Bay and Bloody Bay. The morass lies on the coastal flood plain of the Black River and attracts over 300 animal species including birds, butterflies and reptiles.
San San (Map)
This small preserve behind the police station turns up may of the same species as Ecclesdown. It is much smaller and has a few open areas where houses give breaks in the forest. Great for Ring-tailed Dove, Sad Flycatcher, Jamaican Peewee etc.
Yallahs Salt Ponds (Map)
25 miles east of Kingston on the coast road – strictly shorebirds and some migrant warblers. No lodging nearby, but can be a worthwhile stop on the drive between Kingston and the Port Antonio area.
Major Source: Fatbirder
Map Source: Google