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Jamaica is a land of endemic species

Published: Sat, May 7, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

Biologists love to see species they have never seen before. The best places to see endemic species (those that occur only in isolated geographic areas) are islands. Remote islands far from mainland areas often are most famous for their endemic species.

On the Galapagos Islands, for example, 13 species of Darwin’s finches, 15 other birds and giant tortoises are found only on the Galapagos. Hawaii and Madagascar also are bastions of endemism.

Many such hot spots of endemism are well known, but I recently learned of another, and it’s not so far away or difficult to get to — Jamaica. In 2009, I got a copy of “A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica” ($29.95, Princeton University Press), and it quickly disappeared on a bookshelf. A few months ago, I picked it up on a cold winter day and discovered that 28 species of endemic birds live there. Now Jamaica had my attention.

The more I learned about Jamaica, the more I wanted to visit. I just returned from a quick, six-day trip filled with four full days of birding.

Having never been to Jamaica, I decided to focus on the six species depicted on the cover of the field guide (five on the front, one on the back). My goal was to see 20 of the 28 endemics.

On the first morning I visited Marshall’s Pen (a pen is a ranch), just outside of Mandeville. Greeted by owner Ann Sutton, who just happens to be the lead author of the field guide, I quickly saw a red-billed streamertail and a Jamaican tody.

The streamertail is a hummingbird with two long, trailing tail feathers that flap up and down as it moves from flower to flower. The tody is a tiny, vibrant green bird with bright, red throat that makes its living gleaning insects from the underside of leaves. I saw it many times during the trip, and it quickly became my favorite.

As the morning progressed, I saw the Jamiaca woodpecker, which resembles our red-belly, the Jamaican lizard cuckoo, which measures about 15 inches long, and the surprising, large chestnut-bellied cuckoo. It seemed much longer than its 19 inches thanks largely to its long tail that it fanned in flight.

As a reminder of home, a blue-throated warbler fed at some oranges Sutton had offered on a feeder.

Later that first day, I moved on to the aptly named Hellshire Hills near the coast. It was brutally hot, but I picked up three life birds — smooth-billed ani, grey kingbird and Bahama mockingbird.

At day’s end, I traveled through the mountains to the northeast coast town of Port Antonio to spend the night. On day two, I walked along Ecclesdown Road to higher elevations. Here I picked up white-chinned thrush, white-eyed thrush and Jamaican crow. In the afternoon, I relaxed for a few hours at the beautiful beach at Frenchmen’s Cove and picked up greater Antillean grackles as they scavenged among the goodies left behind by picnickers.

Before checking out from the Goblin Hill Hotel the next morning, I spent about 30 minutes watching the nectar feeders on the patio. There I got repeated and excellent views of red-billed streamertails, black-billed streamertails, Jamaican mangos (a large hummer) and bananaquits. I spent my last night at an eco-lodge in the mountains called Forres Park.

Just before dinner, a Jamaican owl began calling. The field guide describes this owl as “common and widespread, but hard to find.” Fortunately, two staff members were familiar with the bird, and they led a short hike into the forest behind the kitchen and put a spotlight on the bird. It preened, yawned and stretched for minutes. I couldn’t have gotten a better view.

As a birding destination, Jamaica was a pleasant surprise. I saw 26 of 28 endemics and got an additional 10 life birds. Other highlights include the tiny vervain hummingbird, white-crowned pigeon, crested quail dove, Blue Mountain vireo and the sad flycatcher.

I must warn you. however, that it’s difficult to get around the country. The coastal roads are excellent, but crossing the mountains is torturous on steep, winding, pot-hole-filled roads. I quickly learned to think of distances in hours rather than miles. Hiring a driver is the way to go.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.

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