My problem with birdwatching trips (as I may have said before) is that they start way too early. I would rather ease into them at, say, eleven o’clock, having had a good breakfast and a good jolt of coffee. But alas, by then the birds would be busy doing whatever birds do at that time of day, and barely visible. So, when we do birding trips with BirdLife Jamaica, it’s meet at 6 a.m., or you’re a sissy. But as we drove through Clarendon in convoy to our destination, we gradually woke up. There are parts of the Portland Bight Protected Area where you just start to absorb the sense of nothingness. OK, that may sound weird – but as we drove down small, dusty side roads with the early morning sun in our eyes, we slowed into a more relaxed pace and started to observe the spiky trees, the pale sky. Enjoyable, and possibly even worth getting up in the dark for.
We emerged in Portland Cottage, which had hardly woken from its Sunday morning slumber. It’s a small and scattered community, but one or two residents acknowledged our presence and chatted. We disembarked hastily from our cars, hoping to immediately see, on the doorstep of Portland Cottage…flamingoes. Alas, what we saw was a wide expanse of mud. Some of it was dry, forming mosaic-like patterns. Some of it was…well, muddier, as we were soon to find out. Beyond were the shallows of the salt marsh, dotted with artistic clumps of mangrove.
Why were we looking for flamingoes? Because they had been seen several times in the area recently; it is quite unusual to see them in Jamaica, although they are fairly common in patches elsewhere in the Caribbean. The Greater Flamingo lives in large colonies in the Bahamas, in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, in particular areas. It does not breed in Jamaica, although interestingly one or two juveniles had apparently been spotted. There is a scattering of them elsewhere in the Caribbean; but like almost everything else that lives and breathes (except for humans of course) they are not as common as they used to be. This little group may be Cuban migrants.
So, they were not in the place we had hoped they would be. We would have seen them, if they were, in their shocking pink plumage. They are also four feet or so tall. They would be sticking out a mile, as the saying goes. We shrugged our shoulders, a trifle disappointed, but proceeded to potter around quite a bit, to see what else we could see.
The Reddish Egrets proved to be a delight. These elegant birds are also not seen so often, and they are nothing like the extremely common Cattle Egret in their behavior. They pirouetted on the salt flats, in the shallow water that mirrored their long slender legs, in search of their food. They made quick dashes, stretching their long necks and sometimes lifting their wings in their excitement. Their pursuit of food is not the motionless pose of the heron, waiting for its prey to come close. No, the Reddish Egret loves the thrill of the chase. (Reddish? You may ask. Well, those we saw – which are more common I understand – were the “white morph.”)
I mentioned above that we pottered around. Well, I am not sure if “potter” is the word. Let us say we negotiated our way, with some trepidation, around the edge of the salt marsh. Occasionally, a birder would find him/herself in a dead end situation and have to pick his/her way carefully back the way he/she came. Sometimes, we stopped to laugh at the condition of our boots or shoes, which acquired a thick (and increasingly heavy) fringe of steel-grey, sticky mud. If you stayed in one place for too long – depending on how heavy you were – you felt yourself slowly becoming embedded in it. It’s clingy, and doesn’t want to let you go once it has taken hold.
As you can see, we also had a good laugh over a pair of abandoned water boots. Obviously their owner had grown tired of them. Indeed, we saw some residents (young men) walking in bare feet. It actually makes more sense, so long as you don’t mind a certain squelching feeling between your toes.
We did see a Tricolored Heron – which, for one tremulous moment, I thought was a brownish Flamingo – another elegant bird, but only half the height. Remarkably, also, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon on the wing – a decided rarity, a beautiful hawk with pointed wings, flying with rapid wingbeats over the mangroves. I have seen them in England many times, but they are unusual in this part of the world, mostly frequenting coastal areas. Shorebirds, ducks and seabirds are their prey; I suspect they would not tackle a Flamingo, though.
Then we had some excitement in a nearby patch of mangrove, which was alive with migratory birds. A Yellow Warbler seemed interested in us – such a pretty golden bird in the dark foliage. A Hooded Warbler (another rarity) darted out so fast that our able guide Ricardo Miller was only able to burst out its name before it was gone.
Well, we did as much as we could. The salt flats were serenely quiet, subdued even, and I longed for a flash of pink. But it was not to be, at least, not this time. We had to return to Kingston – but some of the birders pressed on, and yes, found the Flamingoes! How envious we were.
I was happy, though, to enjoy the dance of the Reddish Egrets.