Jamaica’s Real Nature

An airplane arrives at the Montego Bay Airport, Jamaica.

An airplane arrives at the Montego Bay Airport.

“Welcome to Montego Bay, Jamaica!”

A Latin-looking middle-aged woman dressed in a skirt-style business suit spoke from the front of my airport mini-bus, “If you look in your information packet, you’ll find your assigned time to meet with one of our excursion coordinators to sign up for one of the exciting trips outlined in your packet. You’ll all be dropped off in the main lobby, and once you’ve checked in you’ll be assigned to one of the hotel’s four lobbies, corresponding with the color of your armband…”

My skin crawled. Knowing the importance of all-inclusive resorts to Jamaican tourism, I’d decided to spend one night in Montego Bay to check out the scene, but this was too many assignments! And what was with the lobby segregation? Aside from being elitist, it sounded like glorified cattle-prodding. I looked around for supportive glimmers of disgust in my fellow passengers, but no signs of rebellion here. The other bus riders bobbed with enthusiasm, apparently so excited to be in Jamaica that it mattered not that they were being herded and managed into pre-assigned pastures. Undoubtedly luxurious pastures, but penned confines nonetheless.

I overheard the pale, balding man in front of me boast loudly to neighboring seat mates that he and his wife were on their third visit. His overly-plump wife leaned over and murmured confidentially across the aisle that they had never left the poolside on their last visit but were thinking of trying one of the waterfall excursions this time.

I was aghast! How could anyone come to a biodiverse country like Jamaica and then spend the entire visit lounging by a pool with standard issue coconut palms as the only token nature in sight?! It was suddenly clear to me why there were no riots when the guide casually mentioned the ban on inter-lounge mingling – a sun-drenched pool was all these folks desired. Local jerk, endangered iguanas, birds endemic to Jamaica (found nowhere else in the world), mountain forests, and small towns were not on my fellow passengers’ itineraries.

“Everyone here is staying at the Iberostar, right?” the guide’s words caught my attention.

“No!!!” I yelled, the adamancy of my answer drawing all eyes on me.

Relieved to not be a part of this all-inclusive herding fest, I responded that I was staying at the Hilton. Apparently an unusual example of an independent traveler, I had been handed over by the Hilton to someone else’s airport bus. So beyond expectation was my request that I found myself pleading with the bus driver to stop as he nearly sped past my hotel. I daresay he would not have stopped had the entire bus not begun shouting in my defense, although it was unclear as to whether they were on my side or simply didn’t think I belonged in their lounge-segregated company.

It turned out that while I had escaped the bus and its prearranged herd, I hadn’t escaped the all-inclusive format. I was baffled as the receptionist locked a colored band around my wrist. What was the band for? I was sure I hadn’t booked an all-inclusive stay. And I hadn’t. The receptionist confessed that the hotel had allowed non-inclusive guests as well when I had booked, but their policy had changed since. She reassured me though that I had access to all the hotel lounges.

And so it was that despite my intention to be an outside observer, I experienced the all-inclusive world first-hand. It was interesting from a people-watching perspective; and while I survived by escaping to the nearby city on my own, all-inclusive is not an experience I will be seeking again. I was certainly ready for check-out. I practically leapt into friend and local-birding guide Ann Sutton’s arms when I found her camped out on the hotel stoop the next day, not allowed past the front door given her lack of colored arm band. We were off to see Jamaica’s real nature.

Red-billed Streamertail being fed at the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary.

Red-billed Streamertail being fed at the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary.

Our first destination was the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary not far away from Montego Bay. Created in the 1950s by bird-loving Lisa Salmon, and now operated by her nephew and staff that has been there 20+ years, this spot’s allure runs well beyond its idyllic gardens. With incredible patience and over a period of many years, Lisa trained the neighborhood hummingbirds to drink sugar-water from small, hand-held bottles while perched on a human finger – not just her finger, any visitor’s finger. Many generations of hummingbirds later, this practice has become part of the birds’ local culture and hummingbirds adamantly defend the covered patio where visitors sit quietly in plastic chairs enticingly holding sweet-filled bottles a couple of inches in front of a steadily outstretched finger. I confess to feeling a bit idiotic while holding this pose for several minutes as first a Jamaican Mango and then a Red-billed Streamertail, locally called doctorbird, consecutively eyed me from a line above, chasing off any infiltrating birds and disappearing for stretches of time before returning to their sentry posts. I was about to give up when the guarding Red-billed Streamertail alighted on my finger to sip from my bottle. It weighed nearly nothing, yet I struggled to keep my finger still as it balanced to sip. I found myself holding my breath in awe, but also for fear that even a light exhale might topple this magnificent tiny creature and that it might not come back. My fears of course were unfounded and not only did the streamertail become a repeat visitor, but the mango eventually returned for a taste as well.

It was hard to tear away from this spectacle, but the grounds were too alive with birds and lizards not to explore further. In less than an hour I’d added White-chinned Thrush, Jamaican Oriole, Jamaican Crow, Orangequit, Jamaican Woodpecker and Rufous-tailed Flycatcher to the list of Jamaican endemic birds I’d seen, plus the endemic Jamaican giant anole and Jamaican croaking gecko. I’d been concerned that this stop might be a tourist trap; and, while it certainly attracted tourists, it clearly did serve as a refuge for birds as well. And hand-feeding hummingbirds, was far more incredible than I would have anticipated!

Negril was next. Famous for its beaches, that gained notoriety as a pot-smoking refuge for hippies and their descendents, and some bar I was repeatedly told I needed to visit at sunset for cliff-diving, we opted instead to explore the area’s interior swamplands, called morasses. The Negril Royal Palm Boardwalk was more-or-less deserted despite its hefty infrastructure but was certainly not devoid of life. A variety of waterbirds milled across the entrance pond and three West Indian Whistling Ducks claimed the boardwalk railing. An unusual day-time sighting at the best of times, these were particularly intriguing as they seemed arranged to emulate some one-bodied, three-headed Hindu god. The royal palm forest and fern-fringed wetlands appeared  beautiful to me. Ann, however, saw a system deteriorated by poaching and non-native plant invasions. She could tell because decades ago she’d surveyed this site to be a reservation, wading through chest-high waters and vegetation with measuring tape and clipboard in hand. Deteriorated or not, this morass appeared tranquil at sunset and at least one flock of West Indian Whistling Ducks was grateful for what remained.

Rockhouse Hotel in Negril.

Rockhouse Hotel in Negril.

We were scheduled for an early start the next morning, but the Rockhouse Hotel where we were staying proved too enchanting to simply sleep there. Rustic but impeccably designed stone and thatch-roofed huts perched on individual cliffs above turquoise waters. I watched fish dart in and out of the rocks below from a hut-side lounge chair; an anole scurried across a rock beside me; and I could hear birds singing from the gardens around and beyond my accommodation. We postponed departure to explore the gardens, snorkel the reefs, test the pool and simply bask, reluctantly returning our keys exactly at check-out time. But there was yet another morass to explore!

Jamaican crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) in the Black River.

Jamaican crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) in the Black River.

While awaiting our Black River Safari tour along the island’s southwestern coast, I sampled vegetarian patties from a local bakery and my first-ever june plum juice; both tasted delicious and were served quickly so we didn’t miss our tour start time. Unfortunately, our tour started in a depressing enclosure holding captive crocodiles. Our guide was unable to explain the conservation value of these overly-populated and under-sized cages, and seemed to relish riling up the young ones with a stick before capturing one for our tour group to touch. Supposedly for education and outreach, the guide seemed to view this crocodile handling as his opportunity to display his self-appointed bad-assness. I prayed the boat excursion part of the tour would be better, and once I ignored the misleading information coming from the guide, it was. The lower morass of the Black River proved a beautiful place. Water corridors lined in drapery of red mangrove roots led from one lake-like setting to the next, each punctuated with tree islands, fields of tall grasses and a backdrop of mountains. Cattle egrets nested in the mangrove trees; Jamaican crocodiles lurked among the roots; and grassy areas were speckled with herons, egrets, grebes and ducks. Crocodiles stole the show and whatever the inadequacies of the tour organization, these shy animals certainly wouldn’t have been so prominent and obliging of spectators if not for these operators. In fact, based on the reports of increased poaching thanks to a new-found market for crocodile meat (see my Goat Islands blog for more on this), it is possible that none of these impressive beasts would be alive if not for this company. As if in testament to the firm’s crocodile-protecting role, a particularly large specimen was sprawled across the end of the dock when we returned to shore, drawing both tourist attention and also a line of local kids gawking from the bridge above.

Bird guide Ann Sutton in Cockpit Country.

Bird guide Ann Sutton in Cockpit Country.

Moving inland and away from wetlands, our following day was spent in the Cockpit Country. Patches of rugged limestone cliff towered above fog-filled valleys, glowing reddish-orange in the golden rays of sunrise. As the light spread, the engulfing forest came alive with bird calls. A Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo flew across my path and disappeared into the trees ahead. I snuck closer for a better view and was pleasantly surprised to find a tiny emerald green bird with bright-red throat, a Jamaican Tody, seated on a twig squarely in the middle of the gap I’d peered into. It cocked its head at me before bouncing further into the foliage. A buzzing sound drew my attention back to the road in time to see the magnificent tail plumes of a Red-billed Streamertail rippling by. It was no wonder Jamaican’s had chosen this elegant creature to be one of their six national symbols. A bit further down the road a Jamaican Spindalis picked berries from a tree and further still a cloud of feathers from above alerted me to a Merlin plucking an unfortunate songbird, what looked like a flycatcher, for breakfast. Closer to the ground, Jamaican gray anoles and Jamaican turquoise anoles scampered through the vegetation and across canvases of orange, brown, white, gray and black limestone rocks. Bromeliads, strap ferns and fig trees clung to the sheer karst cliffs and an assortment of invertebrate-covered wildflowers and shrubs lined the bases. To my novice eye, Cockpit Country was beautiful and fascinatingly full of unique flora, fauna and geologic formations – it lived up to its reputation as a center of endemism within this island-nation so broadly endowed with endemic species to begin with.

As I trailed a Tody from one bush to another, I was jerked from my naive perspective by a disgusted male voice calling from down the road, “Why you people destroying ‘dis place?!”

I begrudgingly turned to see a man in flip flops and tattered clothes clumping up the hill. The muscles of one lean arm bulged under the burden of a tethered bundle of firewood as the other arm swung a machete, seemingly standard male attire in the countryside. He’d pleasantly greeted us at daybreak, as he’d previously passed us empty-handed in the other direction, but his demeanor seemed to have changed with the day’s effort for there was no sign of a smile now.

“Wha-choo-mean?” Ann shifted into a jive that I barely understood, “We love ‘dis place, man!”

The only thing I understood from the next several minutes of conversation was that somehow us white people were destroying this man’s homeland. I ostensibly absorbed myself in pursuit of my Tody, all the while keeping a keen eye on the unfolding situation. The man’s voice kept getting louder and more agitated; the bundle of firewood was now on the ground; and the machete was flailing through the air, punctuating particularly vigorous statements. I kept thinking it was time to shove Ann into the car and screech away before anyone got killed, but she seemed to be holding her own in the argument and ultimately the man gathered his wood and bade us farewell with a big grin.

“What was that all about?” I asked, still a bit on edge after the machete man had rounded the corner.

It turns out ‘us white people’ wasn’t entirely racial but more of a generalization for those in economic and political control of the country. The guy was a bit off his rocker because somehow aliens and devil snakes had made it into his arguments, but Ann confirmed that the Cockpit Country was being carelessly destroyed. The roadside we traveled was covered with shrubs, invasive exotic plants that the Forestry Department had planted. Unfortunately, Forestry seemed to view planting any plant as reforestation and were apparently oblivious  to the ill-affects of non-native invasive species. Endemic plants in this area have been displaced by the monocultures that resulted from these plantings, plantings that continue to spread. The man was bemoaning the domination of these useless new plants and the fact that it’s made it harder to find many of the species that he and others who live off these lands have relied upon for generations.

It was a sad tale. No wonder the man needed to rant at the unusual white folks on his road while flailing his machete through the air!

Jamaican Mango hummingbird at Marshall's Pen.

Jamaican Mango hummingbird at Marshall’s Pen.

We spent the remainder of the day at Ann’s own property, Marshall’s Pen, on the outskirts of Mandeville. Originally a cattle property, then purchased by the Governor of Jamaica in 1755 and established as a coffee plantation, many of the early buildings remain. The downstairs of Ann’s home, in fact, was the main coffee processing area until the 1940’s when her father-in-law converted the space into a living room, dining room and extra bedroom. Not only is the building historic, but the Sutton family filled it with heirlooms and period relics from both England and Jamaica to create a veritable living museum. The formal entry garden whizzed with Red-billed Streamertails, Jamaican Mangos and Vervain Hummingbirds fussing about her plantings and sugar-water feeders. A Jamaican Owl filled the air with howler-monkey-like calls as it awakened at dusk from its old-growth tree roost (eluding sightings though). And the hilly acreage beyond the house and garden was a mosaic of cattle-pastures, ponds and native forest that Ann both preserves and regenerates. A bird-filled sunrise walk along the ancient stone walls interspersed throughout her property added Jamaican Vireo, Jamaican Euphonia, Jamaican Becard, Arrow-headed Warbler, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, and Sad Flycatcher to our growing trip list of endemic birds.

We’d now had good views (not counting calls or fleeting glimpses) of 18 of Jamaica’s 29 endemic bird species and some impressive countryside, but we had yet to visit one of the island’s most famous nature destinations – the Blue Mountains. Named for its incessant blanket of bluish fog, the Blue Mountain range dominates the eastern third of the island and is one of the largest ranges in the Caribbean with one of the highest peaks in the region. It too is another center of endemism. It’s an essential stop for serious birders because of the endemic Blue Mountain Vireo that is found nowhere else. Passing through the urban chaos of Kingston was a jolting contrast to our days in relatively unpopulated and wilderness areas, but we were greeted with more of the same serenity on the other side. We stayed in the mountains at the idyllic Strawberry Hill Hotel where we were surrounded by tranquility but with impressive views back down across the capital, which was nothing less than awe-inspiring when lit up at night.

We struck out early to explore the Hardwar Gap area, especially looking for the Blue Mountain Vireo and Crested Quail-Dove. The vegetation here was lush with a cloud forest feel thanks to the epiphytes and lingering fog. Sadly, Ann was once again able to point out invasive species and other signs of disturbance. Apparently there is only one small patch of virgin cloud forest that remains, hidden somewhere inaccessibly within the Holywell Recreation Area. We spent some time exploring the trails in this park, but mostly wandered down the main road and a few side tributaries that were thankfully sparse on traffic and abundant on birds. Grassquits, both Black-faced and the Jamaican endemic Yellow-shouldered, stripped seeds from roadside grasses. A Jamaican Blackbird demonstrated its unique ecological niche by repeatedly fishing insects and tadpoles from the water-filled tanks of a tree-dwelling bromeliad. Not far beyond, an adult frog tucked discreetly between the leaves of a different bromeliad. A Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo found our attempts to attract the Blue Mountain Vireo with playback tapes offensive and began swooping all around us, calling loudly while comically puffing its feathers and pumping its impressive tail. Following its abrupt departure, the Blue Mountain Vireo ventured into view for a few moments before disappearing back into dense foliage. The Crested Quail-Dove was never as cooperative, our only view being limited to a glimpse of the right-shaped silhouette deep within the brush. An endemic Ring-tailed Pigeon eventually posed briefly though, as did the Jamaican Peewee and Jamaican Elaenia. After many playback attempts, a Rufous-throated Solitaire finally obliged us with a full-fledged concert, sitting first on one perch and then another as it trilled away.

Children relax on a traditional Maroon fishing funnel made from rocks.

Children relax on a traditional Maroon fishing funnel made from rocks.

We worked our way up and over the mountains, passing picturesque limestone striations lining the Buff Bay River. It was Sunday and we were in Maroon country where African slaves established freed communities in the 1600’s, which they maintained independently through much of British rule. Every church we passed was filled and passionate gospel songs emanated through the hills and valleys. In the river below, carefully placed lines of rocks forming funnels revealed the Maroon’s traditional fishing methods. We attempted to visit the enticingly muraled Maroon Museum, but it was closed. Understandably so. It was time for Sunday lunch and every other yard supported multi-generational assemblages of family and friends gathered around an outdoor cooking area of one sort or another.

We continued on through the fishing town of Port Antonio to the Frenchman’s Cove Resort at San San. The accommodations of this once famous and proud resort left much to be desired, but we were really here for the scenery and two specific birds – the Black-billed Streamertail and the Jamaican Owl. A small, clear stream flowed from the property entrance along a vegetated embankment and along the base of a cliff to merge with the ocean at a white-sand cove. The beach, with its seaside snack shack and mellow river, drew crowds of day visitors and also the hummingbirds we desired. With black bills instead of red, as well as behavioral differences, Black-billed Streamertails are considered by many experts to be a separate hummingbird species endemic to the eastern portions of Jamaica. Whatever the taxonomical case, it didn’t take long for one of these elegant birds to nestle into the stream-side vegetation before me. As the evening light dimmed, the streamertail squeaked away (literally – streamertail wings make a squeaking sound) and howler-monkey-like calls drew me toward the reception area. The guards scurried over to help me out by confirming that a Jamaican Owl roosted in the monstrous tree between the driveway and reception. I waited patiently through many a booming call before the bird finally emerged into view. It barely paid heed to its audience and as soon as the last hints of light faded from the sky, it silently disappeared into the darkness.

We had one more day of nature wandering before resigning to Kingston for a meeting of the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group, at which I was to give a presentation. Our chosen destination was another popular birding spot, Ecclesdown Road along the eastern edge of the John Crow Mountains National Park. I still hoped for a Crested Quail-Dove and a White-eyed Thrush, the only endemics missing from our list and better photo opportunities for the two endemic Amazon parrots and the Ring-tailed Pigeon, all of which we’d only glimpsed in flight thus far. The forest was beautiful, but the weather didn’t cooperate. I heard rumbling water and assumed we were near a waterfall, but in fact a stormy wall was heading straight for us. We raced for the car and leapt in just as the first fat drops struck the windshield. We spent the next several minutes seated in stuffiness with only the view being sheets of water streaming across glass. After a second tropical deluge struck, the wildlife apparently decided to lay low. Our outing did yield a White-eyed Thrush and better than previous views of Black-billed Amazon Parrots, but we finally retired our endemic bird quest in exchange for one last small-town meal before Kingston.

As we sat at a roof-top restaurant in the fishing village of Manchioneal, watching our waitress run down the street to purchase the fish we ordered directly from a boat, while smelling the chef’s ganja wafting from the kitchen, I smiled. So the elusive Crested Quail-Dove was missing from my list of Jamaican endemic birds… I could live with that. More power to the fans of colored arm-bands, segregated lounges and eternal pool-side lounging, but I for one was pleased to have escaped into the real nature of Jamaica!

Jamaican Tody.

Jamaican Tody.

Be sure to visit my Photo Gallery to see more Jamaica photos.

Travel Tips –

  • Dr. Ann Hayes Sutton has lived in Jamaica for over three decades and has become one of its experts on natural history and conservation. She has led birding tours for over two decades and recently published a revised edition of the photographic guide to the birds of Jamaica. She  devotes her life to conserving Jamaica’s incredible biodiversity and schedules her guiding around her many other conservation activities, as well as running her cattle operation, so it is best to see if she is available well in advance or book through tours that use her services. Contact her directly at (876) 904-5454 or  asutton@cwjamaica.com.
  • The Rocklands Bird Sanctuary outside of Montego Bay is considered stiffly priced by some, but the fee covers years of hummingbird training and the ongoing protection of these, other birds and necessary habitat. Truly, it’s a priceless experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere and is well worth the visit.
  • The sign for the Royal Palm Reserve along the main road beyond Negril is easy to miss, but the place is worth the effort to find. Well-maintained boardwalks provide intimate views of a unique landscape and up-close encounters with usually secretive West Indian Whistling Ducks.
  • I did have some reservations about the Black River Safari captive program and the information being conveyed by the guide/ captain on my trip, but it is undoubtedly the best way to see the area’s lower morass and particularly Jamaican crocodiles.
  • There are many trails and parks worth exploring in and around the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. More information can be found at the national park’s homepage.
  • The Maroon Museum in Charles Town was easy to find by car and looked worth exploring, but opening hours are a little unclear. It seems you need to track down Colonel Frank Lumsden or go on an organized tour. Buff Bay Valley and The Portland Experience were the two operators I found on a quick internet search offering museum tours, but I know nothing about either of them.
  • Jamaican hotels will be covered more extensively in my next blog, but here are links to the hotels mentioned: Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa, Rockhouse Hotel, Strawberry Hill Hotel, Frenchman’s Cove.
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