Friday 29 March 2024

A Quest Nature Tour Of Jamaica

The Caribbean island of Jamaica is a naturalist’s paradise. Situated south of eastern Cuba, east of Honduras and north of Colombia, Jamaica has an interesting assemblage of species with different origins. Jamaica was never connected to the mainland throughout its long geological history. Everything that arrived on the island had to get there by traveling over open water. Like all islands, Jamaica has a lower number of species compared to a similar area on the mainland. The ones that are present, however, are more likely to be unique. 

Red-billed Streamertail

For example, Jamaica has 29 extant species of birds that are endemic; as in, they are found nowhere else in the world. This is a comparable number to the much larger island of Cuba. A high proportion of the various reptiles, plants and insects found on Jamaica are also endemic to the island. 

Jamaican Oriole

I have recently returned from a tour of Jamaica with a group from Quest Nature Tours. We were all looking forward to some sun, endemic birds, a diversity of habitats and some of the excellent cuisine that Jamaica is known for. In the end, the trip was highly successful. The group managed to see every single one of the endemic birds, the sun was very welcome, and the jerk chicken, curries and patties were delicious. We also had the privilege to be joined by Ann Haynes-Sutton, a highly regarded conservation ecologist who has dedicated much of her life to studying Jamaica’s ecosystems and the species that call them home. 

Jamaican Turquoise Anole (Anolis grahami)

Our trip began in the bustling city of Kingston where, due to some flight scheduling shenanigans, most of the group flew in a day early. Our extra time allowed us to visit the Hellshire Hills southwest of the city. This extensive area of dry forest is home to several extremely threatened species including the Jamaican Rock Iguana. If the presumed extinct Jamaican Poorwills still exists, this would be the area to find it. Our visit to Hellshire was productive as we found a bonus bird that otherwise wouldn’t be possible on the tour – Bahama Mockingbird – while we were introduced to many of the endemic bird species found on the island like Jamaican Vireo, Jamaican Mango and Yellow-shouldered Grassquit. 

Bahama Mockingbird

Jamaican Mango on nest

An afternoon foray to the Hope Botanical Gardens produced a roosting Northern Potoo, endemic Yellow-billed Parrots and Red-billed Streamertails, recently-arrived migrant Gray Kingbirds, and a few introduced species including Rose-ringed Parakeet and Small Indian Mongoose. The latter species is causing a lot of problems on the island and is the main culprit for the dire plight of the Jamaican Rock Iguana. 

Northern Potoo

Red-billed Streamertail

Once the tour officially kicked off we headed north and then east, basing ourselves near the coast in Port Antonio. The birding and herping was excellent on the grounds of our ecolodge, and we found gems such as the tiny Vervain Hummingbird, our first Jamaican Owls (heard-only for most, unfortunately), a curious pair of Chestnut-bellied Cuckoos and several showy Black-billed Streamertails. This streamertail is only found in the eastern corner of the island and was formerly considered a subspecies of the widespread Red-billed Streamertail. 

Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo

Female Black-billed Streamertail feeding young

Anoles were frequently observed on most days. Jamaica has a considerably smaller list of anoles than neighbouring Cuba, for example, but we caught up with most of the endemic species. 

Jamaican Turquoise Anole (Anolis grahami)

Bluefields Anole (Anolis opalinus)

Molting Jamaican Giant Anole (Anolis garmani)

One morning, we explored along the famous (among birders) Ecclesdown Road. This loop road travels through humid forest in the lower foothills of the John Crow Mountains and every endemic bird species can be found here. We found both endemic parrots (Yellow-billed and Black-billed), Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Arrowhead Warbler and much more. Unfortunately, the lone Jamaican Blackbird disappeared before the group could see it, but we would remedy that later in the trip. 

Yellow-billed Parrots

Indian Shot (Canna indica)

We also spent some time along the coast where the nesting White-tailed Tropicbirds were a big highlight. Afterwards, the jerk chicken and cold beer in the town of Boston (where jerk chicken was invented) really hit the spot! 

White-tailed Tropicbird

The Blue Mountains were next on the agenda and they certainly did not disappoint. We stayed at a lodge in the highlands and found most of our remaining bird targets within walking distance of our rooms. A particular highlight for many were several Crested Quail-Doves, certainly one of the most beautiful of Jamaica’s endemic birds. We also had memorable encounters with birds such as Blue Mountain Vireo, Jamaican Elaenia and Jamaican Tody, while we had many chances to sample the world-famous Blue Mountain coffee. 

Jamaican Tody

Pine Pink Orchid (Bletia purpurea)

Crested Quail-Dove

Staying in the mountains afforded me the opportunity to set up my moth trap overnight. Quite a few moths and other insects turned up, many of which are only found in Jamaica. 

An endemic tiger moth, Hypercompe nigriplaga

An endemic caddisfly, Chimarra argentella

A endemic wasp-mimicking moth, Horama grotei

An endemic sphinx moth, Enyo latipennis

An endemic leaf beetle, Diabrotica jamaicensis

A wasp-mimicking moth, Nyridela chalciope

An endemic jewel caterpillar moth, Acraga ciliata

Before leaving the Blue Mountains, we found a few scarce bird species including a Greater Antillean Elaenia and finally, a Jamaican Blackbird. Though it doesn't look particularly unique, the Jamaican Blackbird has an interesting foraging strategy as it prefers sneaking around the trunks of trees and looking for food deep within the bromeliads. It is theorized that it fills this niche due to the absence of foliage-gleaners or woodcreepers in Jamaica. 

The Blue Mountains

We left the mountains behind and drove west to Marshall's Pen, a former coffee and ranching estate that dates back to the early 1800's and which is currently Ann's home. During our three-night stay here we made daily excursions, while we also enjoyed the excellent birding, herping and mothing on the grounds. We found a cooperative Jamaican Owl one evening, thus completing the set of all 29 endemic birds seen for the group, and we also had excellent encounters with Jamaican Becards, Red-billed Streamertails, a Northern Potoo and some neat herps including Jamaican Croaking Gecko and Snoring Treefrog. We also set up the moth traps on a couple of evenings with a local expert. 

Female Jamaican Becard

An endemic tiger moth, Are druryi

An endemic leafhopper, Apogonalia sanguinipes

Jamaican Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger praesignis)

One day, we explored the lower Black River morass where we encountered some American Crocodiles. This species is quite distinct genetically, and one day may be afforded species status. The coastal areas also provided some shorebirding opportunities and another swim in the clear blue waters that Jamaica is famous for. 

American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus)

Northern Jacana

Black-crowned Night Heron

We also ventured northward to the relatively pristine and undisturbed Cockpit Country. The difficult terrain caused by limestone uprisings has kept this area relatively intact, and it is the last known site where the Golden Swallow used to be found in Jamaica. Ann pointed out many of the endemic plants here while the butterflying was quite good as well. One person in the group even spotted the endangered Jamaican Giant Swallowtail (Papilio homerus), the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere. 

Jamaican Satyr (Calisto zangis)

An endemic melastome, Blakea trinervia

Our tour of Jamaica finished in the city of Montego Bay on the northwest coast of the island, though before that, we detoured to find several West Indian Whistling-Ducks which is a rapidly declining species in the Caribbean. We also stopped at Rockland's Bird Sanctuary, where we had Red-billed Streamertails, Jamaican Mangos and several grassquits feeding from our hands. The photography opportunities were excellent, highlighted by close views of Caribbean Dove, Jamaican Owl and too many Orangequits to count. 

Feeding a Red-billed Streamertail

Jamaican Mango


Caribbean Dove

Yellow-faced Grassquit

Thanks to all of those who joined me on this trip to Jamaica, and especially, thanks to our expert driver Andrew and our wonderful host and guide Ann. We had an amazing visit!

Tuesday 12 March 2024

A Month In Northern Peru, Part 4: Hits And Misses With Rare Endemics (February 5 and 6, 2024)

February 5, 2024

Today's plan was to complete the drive to Cajamarca, stop for Unicolored Tapaculos on the way, and then spend the rest of the day at a particular river valley where the Gray-bellied Comet is regularly seen. Therefore, since we did not have any early morning birding plans, I allowed for a sleep-in. I warned Laura that this would be the last one for a while!

The scenery improved as we approached Cajamarca. We followed a beautiful river valley for a while, then slowly climbed high up into the mountains. The road was in excellent condition and we had some interesting podcasts to listen to; life was good. 

The road eventually reached the mountain pass - Abra Gavilan - and began its descent into the city of Cajamarca. It is here, along scrubby slopes and creek valleys at the mountain pass, where the Unicolored Tapaculo can be readily found. 

As you will come to appreciate by reading my blog posts from this trip, there are a ton of range-restricted species found only in northern Peru, and the Unicolored Tapaculo is just one of them. It inhabits the western Andes, mainly within 100 km of the city of Cajamarca. Lucky for us, the Unicolored Tapaculo is regularly seen on the highway just southwest of Cajamarca which was directly along our route. 

We stepped out of the car at the first site which I had eBird-scouted. Andean Swifts chittered while they zipped overhead. 

Andean Swift - Abra Gavilan, Cajamarca, Peru

We tried some speculative playback at the first site and immediately had a response. Unfortunately, a few recordings were all that I could manage since the bird refused to show himself. Tapaculos are sneaky, small, sooty-black birds that creep around in the densest tangles. They are quite territorial and will often come in to playback, but obtaining a clear view of one is another matter. 

Laura trying to glimpse the Unicolored Tapaculo - Abra Gavilan, Cajamarca, Peru

Our luck marginally improved at the second location, as we discovered a small gap in the shrubby vegetation which gave us a window into the tapaculo world. But, despite our best efforts, we only managed a few brief glimpses of a small black bird. You take what you can get with tapaculos. Luckily, there were other more cooperative birds around, such as this Yellow-breasted Brushfinch and a Speckled Hummingbird. 

Yellow-breasted Brushfinch - Abra Gavilan, Cajamarca, Peru

Speckled Hummingbird - Abra Gavilan, Cajamarca, Peru

We stopped in Cajamarca to grab lunch at a local restaurant - the total cost for two soups, mains and juice was equivalent to $6 CAD - and continued beyond the city to a river valley. We had a date with a particular hummingbird.

The Gray-bellied Comet is a bit of an enigma. It only inhabits steep-sided canyon walls, and it is inexplicably rare in the Andes of northern Peru. This particular region of Peru has seen continuous human disturbance for thousands of years, so the comet may only reside in these canyons since they are so inaccessible; humans have cleared the rest of the land for grazing and farming many times over. Most of the global range for the Gray-bellied Comet is remote and not accessible, but one locale is alongside a public road that mirrors the meandering route of the Río Chonta. 

Río Chonta area, Cajamarca, Peru

We devoted the rest of the day to finding the Gray-bellied Comet, and we checked numerous sites along the Río Chonta where they had been seen in the past. It was a beautiful afternoon - sunny and not too hot at this elevation - and birds were active. We were on high alert for hummingbirds and we quickly tallied Sparkling Violetear, Tyrian Metaltail, Black Metaltail and Green-tailed Trainbearer. 

Black Metaltail - Río Chonta area, Cajamarca, Peru

This trainbearer caused our hearts to flutter for a second since it bore some similarities to a Gray-bellied Comet. But, in the end, it was "just" a Green-tailed Trainbearer. 

Green-tailed Trainbearer - Río Chonta area, Cajamarca, Peru

We explored further along the river, taking care to watch clusters of pinkish-purple flowers in bushes down beside the water's edge. These flowers are apparently the preferred nectar source for the Gray-bellied Comet. We also made sure to scan up and down the hillsides as there was some hummingbird activity around the bromeliads. 

Río Chonta area, Cajamarca, Peru

As the afternoon wore on, myriad other species came out of the woodwork. We watched a Smoky-brown Woodpecker work over a tree and enjoyed the antics of some Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles, one of which had caught un unidentified prey item. A small band of Band-tailed Seedeaters patrolled the roadside, while the thick scrub produced Line-cheeked Spinetail, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Black-crested Warbler and Cinereous Conebill. 

Band-tailed Seedeater - Río Chonta area, Cajamarca, Peru

Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle - Río Chonta area, Cajamarca, Peru

Despite our vigilance, the afternoon and evening passed by without a sniff of the Gray-bellied Comet. We made trunk sandwiches for dinner, hoping that the extra fifteen minutes it took for us to dine would be the difference maker, and that our target species would fly in at the last second. It was not to be. 

February 6, 2024

Laura and I considered backtracking for the comet since the morning hours can often be more productive with finding hummingbirds (or any birds, for that matter). In the end, we decided against it since it would have added a couple of hours of driving to our day's very full itinerary. I am sure it will not be my last visit to this part of Peru, anyways, so I will have to catch up with the comet at a later date. 

With the sun in our eyes we made the short drive east of Cajamarca towards a little town called Jesús. We carefully navigated the narrow streets, trying not to bottom-out the vehicle in the very deep gutters at some intersections. We were successful with those obstacles and drove several kilometres further, where the houses petered out and desert scrub grew on the hillsides. 

Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

Our goal was to find another localized species. The Great Spinetail lives only in a few arid valleys in northern Peru. It was likely more widespread many years ago, but only to a point. These steep Andean valleys do a good job at separating populations, which over time can lead to differences between these groups, and eventually the differences are significant enough that the two populations are considered two species. It's not a coincidence that there are so many endemic species in these valleys, whether they be birds, lizards, plants, or anything else, really. 

It was a bright sunny morning with a hint of coolness in the air. A perfect day. Birdsong rang out from all around us - mostly Scrub Blackbirds and Rufous-collared Sparrows of course, but also Dull-colored Grassquits, Hepatic Tanagers, and Fulvous-faced Scrub-Tyrants. A woodpecker-like call series revealed the location of a Black-necked Woodpecker. This attractive species is found only in the mountains and hills on the arid west side of Peru. 

Black-necked Woodpecker - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

We prepared peanut-butter sandwiches for breakfast, locked the car and began our walk. Almost immediately, a couple of small birds with very high chip notes flushed from the ground. We were happy to see that they were our first Buff-bridled Inca-Finches. 

Buff-bridled Inca-Finch - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

The genus Incaspiza is uniquely Peruvian, with each of its five species being endemic to a small region within the mountains of Peru. We had seen the Great and Rufous-backed Inca-Finches on our previous trip to southern Peru, while we hoped to clean up the remaining species here in northern Peru.

Buff-bridled Inca-Finch - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

All Inca-finches share some similarities, including white outer tail feathers, a bright yellow beak, a black face mask and generally gray and rufous plumage. These two Buff-bridled Inca-Finches were absolutely glowing in the morning sun. Maybe it was recently bias, but in that moment I declared the Buff-bridled as the most attractive Inca-finch of them all. 

Buff-bridled Inca-Finch - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

Moments later, we heard a bird rattling away down in the valley. That could only be one species, the Great Spinetail. The Buff-bridled Inca-Finches in all their glory were forgotten as we made our way towards the novel sound. 

Soon we were looking at a pair of Great Spinetails. In typical spinetail fashion they were quite furtive, sticking to the darkest shadows, but eventually one of them popped up on top of a bush and sang loudly. 

Great Spinetail - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

Great Spinetail - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

The Great Spinetail is listed as a Vulnerable species by Birdlife International, mainly due to its restricted range as well as the pressures caused by habitat loss. It relies on dense woody vegetation in arid valleys, and these habitats are under considerable threat due to the burgeoning human population. Great Spinetail habitats are often degraded by excessive goat grazing, by logging for firewood collection, and by the clearing of land for oil-palm plantations. 

Great Spinetail - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

Great Spinetail - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

Having had our fill of the spinetails, we turned our attention to the numerous hummingbirds buzzing around a dense patch of Lion's-ear (Leonotis nepetifolia) that was growing near the roadside. 

Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

We noted four hummingbird species: Sparkling Violetear, Amazilia Hummingbird, Spot-throated Hummingbird and Purple-collared Woodstar. 

Spot-throated Hummingbird - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

Amazilia Hummingbird - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

Purple-collared Woodstar - Jesús area, Cajamarca, Peru

The day was still young but he had a significant drive planned. The town of Celendín was our destination for the night, as that would put us in position to search along the Marañón River for a whole suite of endemic species the following day. To reach Celendín, we had a long winding drive through the mountains. Luckily, the road was (mostly) paved. 

We made a few stops here and there along the drive, with several target species in mind. Though we struck out with the much hoped for White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant, we had better luck with our other targets. The light rain and biting wind contrasted with the morning's conditions, but I found it refreshing. I love being high up in the Andes. 

Plain-tailed Warbling-Finch - Micuypampa area, Cajamarca, Peru

Jelski's Chat-Tyrant is an uncommon species that likes scrubby forest edges in the Andes of southern Ecuador and Peru. Chat-tyrants can be sneaky at times, sitting still for long periods of time and only vocalizing infrequently. The Jelski's Chat-Tyrant has a low enough population density, which complicates finding them. But we lucked out at our lunch spot, as one was working over the forest edge near where we had parked. 

Jelski's Chat-Tyrant - Micuypampa area, Cajamarca, Peru

He was a handsome little dude and Laura's pick for Bird Of The Day. How can you not love a Jelski's Chat-Tyrant?

Jelski's Chat-Tyrant - Micuypampa area, Cajamarca, Peru

Jelski's Chat-Tyrant - Micuypampa area, Cajamarca, Peru

Considerably more time went towards obtaining a good look at a Cajamarca Antpitta, but we had to settle for glimpses of a red orb hopping in the understory. No photos, but I managed a few good recordings. This Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant was a bit more cooperative than the antpitta.

Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant - Micuypampa area, Cajamarca, Peru

Due to the steep topography of the Andes, birding is often limited to the roadsides since it is impossible to access the difficult terrain otherwise. We had been birding this main highway all day and while the traffic wasn't constant, it was frequent enough to be a nuisance. It also seems to be a habit for Peruvian drivers to honk at pedestrians, possibly because they are just being friendly, or more likely, to warn them about the oncoming vehicle. This eventually became rather annoying for us. As birders, we are always keenly aware of each vehicle because the engine's roar blocks out all birdsong long before the car actually passes by our position, so the honking seemed a bit excessive. 

Luckily, thanks to some eBird and Google Maps sleuthing (as well as Rob Jansen's trip repot for Peru), we were aware of a dirt track that left the busy roadside and headed west into the hills, eventually leading to small communities and, presumably, a network of other dirt roads. It can be surprising when driving through the Andes how explored they actually are. 

Cruz Conga area, Cajamarca, Peru

We drove down this road for a ways and parked near a nice forest patch, then walked for an hour or so before returning. Even though it was the early afternoon, the birding was steady and the lack of vehicles was refreshing. We heard another Cajamarca Antpitta (this one was too far down the slope to try for), and had some brief glimpses (but no photos) of our first Rainbow Starfrontlet. No worries, we would hopefully see this species much better in the coming days. 

Speaking of orange hummingbirds, this Shining Sunbeam was one of several that we found down the dirt road. 

Shining Sunbeam - Cruz Conga area, Cajamarca, Peru

A small mixed flock contained a couple of handsome Black-crested Tit-Tyrants. 

Black-crested Tit-Tyrant - Cruz Conga area, Cajamarca, Peru

The plant life along the roadside was rather diverse. Below are a few of my favourites. 

Salvia sp. - Cruz Conga area, Cajamarca, Peru

Eryngium humile - Cruz Conga area, Cajamarca, Peru

Fringed Ground Orchid (Altensteinia fimbriata) - Cruz Conga area, Cajamarca, Peru

Castilleja vadosa - Cruz Conga area, Cajamarca, Peru

With our shadows growing long, we walked back to the car, drove back out to the main highway, and completed the remaining 45 minutes of the drive to Celendín. We found an inexpensive hotel on the outskirts of town that had everything we needed, and for 70 soles we had a decent room for the night. We found a restaurant and ran a few errands, then relaxed at the hotel for an hour or two until sleep beckoned. Tomorrow would be a big day - we would drive down into the Marañón Valley, cross the Marañón River, and drive back up the other side, hoping to find a bunch of species that are endemic to this valley.