Jamaica Days

“Bob, mi see a different bird a mi house yesterday.”

Fairweather is a 40-year-old Jamaican employed as a security guard at Green Castle Estate. He is also one of two locals my wife and I have been training as bird guides. So his statement got my full attention.

“A different bird? What do you mean? What was it?

G_Antillean_Bullfinch_Bob_Lockett

A handsome, Fox Sparrow-sized finch, the Greater Antillean Bullfinch is commonly encountered in forests and thick underbrush. (Photo by Bob Lockett)

"O mon, it was a pretty pretty bird. Mi tink it a Rose-breasted Grosbeak”

“Really!” Tell me more! What did you see?”

“It was in a tree outside mi window. Mi saw dis bird wid a black back an white below, wid a nice red breast.”

“How about the bill?”

“It was big big, like a Bullfinch. Here di picture in di book. Mi neva seen dis bird before.”

Fairweather showed us the photo of an adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Ann Hayes-Sutton’s Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of Jamaica. Dwayne, the other trainee, chimed in: “Whoa! Nice bird!” We talked about the rarity of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks on the island (most migrate across the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatan, avoiding the West Indies) and we congratulated him on his sighting.

Reflecting on the episode later that day, we realized that our bird guide training had crossed an important threshold: both trainees had gone beyond an interest in the possible moneymaking aspects of being a guide; they had now progressed to a genuine enthusiasm for birds and birding. We’d like to claim that we were responsible for their expanded worldview, but the reality is that these gentlemen developed this perspective largely on their own.

The two of us are Peace Corps Volunteers from Portland, Oregon, members of the growing “50+” segment of enrollees. We’ve been assigned to the Environment Sector here in Jamaica for 26 months, March 2009-May 2011. Our new home is on a stretch of the north shore that, due to the vagaries of geography and highway design, remains one of the most unspoiled and least-visited coastal portions of the island. Robins Bay in St. Mary Parish is a small, sprawling community of perhaps 1800 souls nestled against the flank of the 1600-acre Green Castle Estate.

Green Castle Estate has had a succession of owners and a history that stretches back to the pre-Columbian Taino culture. Until recently, it was a farm dedicated to the cultivation of one or another of Jamaica’s signature crops: papaya (done in by the ringspot virus of the 1990’s), coconut (severely impacted by Lethal Yellowing disease), sugar cane, pimento (the local name for allspice) and cacao. Lessees still engage in agricultural pursuits as varied as shade house orchid raising, organic coconut oil production, and the raising of beef cattle. Despite—or in some cases because of—this  agricultural use, the estatelands constitute a rich mosaic of habitats hosting a wealth of birds, insects, and plants.

The nonprofit Greencastle Tropical Study Center, to which Adrienne is assigned, is the environmental conscience of the Estate, tasked with conserving its cultural and natural heritage. GTSC’s charge is to provide a ridge-to-reef field station for research and teaching, and to promote tourism activities in a manner that fosters sustainable economic and community development. Since our interest and expertise is birding, we’re doing what we can to put Green Castle on the birding map. To that end, we’ve recommended placement of ads in appropriate publications, hosted BirdLife Jamaica (the local birding club), networked with island and international birders, worked on trail development, undertaken the training of bird guides, and advised on habitat conservation and restoration.

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Jamaican Mangos, like the one pictured above, are large and aggressive hummingbirds. They dominate Green Castle's feeders, bullying the competing streamertails. (Photo by Wayne Sutherland)

Upon our arrival, we learned that a list of birds recorded on the property already existed. It was based in large part on observations made by two Humboldt State University grad students who conducted point counts on the Estate in 2006. Over the last year, we’ve been fortunate to add another 24 species. The Estate checklist, currently 122, includes 21 of the island’s 27 endemics (28, if you split the Streamertails), plus another 7 Caribbean endemics. Given Green Castle’s low elevation, it’s surprising that the avifauna is so rich. Of course, “rich” is relative; a mainland tropical tract of comparable size might host 2 or 3 times as many species.

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The Jamaican Elaenia is one of two elaenias found on the island. We are fortunate that both are distinctively marked; indeed Jamaican birds provide very few identification challenges. (Photo by Mike Whiteside)

The number of Jamaican endemics is related to the island’s isolation from the nearest mainland, but also testimony to the length of that isolation. Although the geological history of the Caribbean is complex and poorly understood, it’s very possible that Jamaica never had a mainland connection. Many species may have “island hopped” to Jamaica from Nicaragua/Honduras during times of low sea levels, when additional islands helped to bridge the distance. James Bond, the famous West Indies ornithologist, theorized that much of Jamaica’s (and the other West Indian islands’) avifauna arrived from Central America before the Pliocene era joining of Central and South America (Bond 1948). He believed that at least some of the ancestral Central American genera and species may have succumbed to competition with colonizing South American avifauna. This would account for the lack of close mainland relatives of such West Indian specialties as the Todys, Palmchats, etc. Whatever their origins, Jamaica has been graced with some unique and truly spectacular bird species.

Northern_Potoo_Bob_Lockett

Potoos are fairly common on the island and can be reliably encountered at Green Castle Estate, where they are often quite approachable as they perch on fence posts after dark. (Photo by Bob Lockett)

We’ve discovered that Green Castle Estate is one of the better places to see some of these unique bird species. Yellow-shouldered Grassquits, Jamaican Elaenias, and Jamaican Becards are fairly common residents, and Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoos and Ring-tailed Pigeons are here, though elusive. The breathy “hooa” of Jamaican Owls is heard nightly during the winter months, and it takes exceptionally bad luck to miss one of the resident Northern Potoos when out after dark.

Jamaican Mangos, Vireos, Spindalis, Euphonias, Orioles, Todies, and Woodpeckers are ridiculously common, as are “Red-billed” Streamertails, White-chinned Thrushes, and Sad and Rufous-tailed flycatchers. Mangrove Cuckoos, despite their name, are found in any brushy habitat. The spring and summer months are punctuated by the incessant “John Chewitt!” songs of Black-whiskered Vireos, which give way in the evening to the “Gimme Me Bit” calls of Antillean Nighthawks. In addition to those treats that one can find on the estate, Ecclesdown Road—an essential stop for those hoping to see Jamaica’s highland endemics—is less than 90 minutes away.

Eight species of pigeon are found on Green Castle (Ringed-tailed and White-crowned pigeons; White-winged, Zenaida, Caribbean, and Mourning doves; Common Ground-Dove; and Ruddy Quail-Dove). Olive-throated Parakeets (common), Green-rumped Parrotlets (fairly common) and Yellow-billed Parrots (vagrant) are the local parrot family representatives.

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In addition to the array of endemics and Caribbean species found on the island, Jamaica serves as a migratory stopover and wintering grounds for many neo-tropical migrants. Black-throated Blue Warbler (above) is among the most common wintering Parulids along with American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, and Cape May and Prairie warblers. (Photo by Bob Lockett)

Sixteen species of warblers have been recorded on the property; certainly a few more must occur in passage. One of our best sightings to date was that of a basic plumaged Blue Grosbeak last October; even more surprising, the same or another individual was found and photographed by us March 1 of this year. According to Ann Hayne-Sutton’s guide (Hayne-Sutton et al. 2009), Blue Grosbeak is a rare vagrant with just one record since 2006. Is it possible that this bird overwintered?

One of the benefits of our long-term residence is that we are afforded the luxury of observing local birds through the seasons. As a result, we gain more than just a brief glimpse into their lives.

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Tiny forest sprites, it's difficult not to think of Jamaican Todies as "cute." Until one learns their characteristic "tschik" calls, they are easily overlooked as they sit quietly in forest undergrowth. (Photo by Bob Lockett)

For two Pacific Northwest residents, living with Caribbean birds is fascinating and a constant source of wonder. Waking to the harsh squawks of Olive-throated Parakeets, the mournful song of Zenaida Doves, and the electrical buzzing of Bananaquits is a treat. We’ve learned that Smooth-billed Anis have a social life as rich as that of many parrots, with mutual grooming and closely-huddled roosting, though they perhaps lack the inquisitive intelligence of psittacines. We’ve discovered that Todies (aka Rasta Bird or Robin Redbreast) are best located by their scolding “tschik” calls since their greenish plumage allows them to blend perfectly with the forest undergrowth. We’ve also come to appreciate why the locals refer to Mangrove Cuckoos as “Rain Birds.” This species seems to call much more frequently before, during, and just after rain.

It’s been an adventure to spend this past year  in Robins Bay and, as with all adventures, there have been low moments and high. Slogging through summer’s oppressive heat, losing the “current” (electricity) for more than a day at a time, traveling in grossly over-packed buses, and attempting to understand a new culture have been real challenges. Our Peace Corps work has had its ups and downs as well. But we know we are making a difference in our community when the kids ask us if we’re running another environmental summer camp and we can see progress with our other projects such as bird guide training. Hearing the sweet whistled call of Jamaican Orioles; swimming in the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean; enjoying the richness and variety of tropical fruits; and birding the forested trails of Green Castle Estate have been among the best parts of this half-completed adventure.

You can find out more about the area’s birds and other facets of local life by following our blogs on the Green Castle Estate’s website: http://blog.gcjamaica.com/.

Sources cited:

Bond, James, 1948, Origin of the Bird Fauna of the West Indies, Wilson Bulletin, Vol. 60, No. 4, p. 207-229.

Haynes-Sutton, Ann, Audrey Downer & Robert Sutton, 2009, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica, Princeton University Press, Princeton

1

Keep up the great work in Robins Bay Bob & Adrienne! Great article!

2

yes, great work and beautiful photographs! What wonderful experiences, thank you for doing and for sharing!

3

During that day, I just woke up (if I remember colerctry (IIRC), 8/9 AM pacific daylight timezone (PDT) since I was unemployed from the dotcom bust) and came to my Windows computer with Internet. I saw my friends chatting in an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) room something about a plane crash. I thought it was an accident, then I noticed terrorism, WTC, etc. Then, my queen ant told me about it briefly in person. I decided to turn on my 20 cathode ray tube (CRT) television (TV) [still have it today and it was from 1996!] and saw all the local news stations (rabbit ears) on this. I saw the replays of an airplane crashing to a tower. Very quiet day for my family too since it was so sad even when we ate together. Such a bad day for everyone.

4

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