After our dramatic hillside expedition at Strawberry Hill recently, we intrepid birders asked: What next? We were ready for anything, now.
This time we set our sights on the fascinating and always revelatory area called Portland Bight. I have written about our experiences there several times before on this blog. Portland Bight is that big lump on Jamaica’s south coast, if you look at the map (no, it is not the parish of Portland!)
Revelatory? This particular trip with BirdLife Jamaica was a series of revelations, rolled into one.
We set out from a shopping mall on the Boulevard, where a hectic outside broadcast was in progress. The bouncy pop music competed heavily with the Seventh Day Adventists next door, who sang with great vigor. Oh, getting out of the city was going to be so good!
The weekend started in style. There was the immediate lure of flamingos. We knew they were out there. And we were instantly gratified! They were just simply there, on the far side of the marsh at Portland Cottage, just as we clambered out of our cars. Some of us were surprised at how sugary pink they were. Several egrets kept them company.
Flamingoes are not at all common in Jamaica. Moreover, they are not here all the time. They live in much greater numbers in Cuba and Hispaniola (in Haiti, the beautiful local name is “Flamant Rose”). Sometimes, I think, a few of them just get bored and say to themselves, “Come on, let’s go somewhere new,” and off they go. Sometimes one sees just one or two. They are always welcome, and local people in the area seem to regard them as celebrities. “Oh, they were here this morning,” they tell belated birders, looking at our disappointed faces when we don’t see them.
Quite far to the south of us, flamingoes live exclusively on a privately owned island off Aruba. They potter around the beach, among the baking tourists, who take selfies with them and feed them. I believe their wings are clipped, so they cannot fly away. As my husband says, “I would prefer to go and look for them, and they are not there sometimes.” Our flamingos are free to come and go. We appreciate them when they are here.
From the mud flats, driving to the club house where we were staying was a slow progression, alongside flat, shining wetlands, through tough and twisted mangroves, slowly ascending towards a forested ridge. Around every corner, there was something new to discover. We passed very few houses. A man was working outside his home, cutting bush and building a wall, sweating and alone. He looked up briefly as we passed. On our return the next day, he was still working, alone. Further along, we unexpectedly came out on the sea shore, where two teenage boys watched us and a man had just lit a bonfire with stacked planks of wood outside a house.
We arrived in the early evening. From the club house, there were lovely views all round. The glossy sea moved in the changing light. Elongated, flat islands floated on the water. The forest ran down the hillside, and where it ended, the sea began.
That afternoon, some of us who had arrived earlier had a rather unnerving meeting with a feral pig, standing on the road in front of them. It was large and black and hairy and seemed to be following them through the bush for a distance, making grunting noises. Feral pigs (domesticated ones gone wild) cause considerable environmental damage and can be aggressive – especially if they have young to protect, as with most animals.
Undeterred, we took an evening walk down the road before the light went. This is dry limestone forest – its own little world. The term “dry limestone forest” sounds a little dull and lifeless – but it is far from it. It has its own special charm. Bright flowers spring out of holes in rocks. There are spiky agave plants and cashews and tall cactus pointing their thick, prickly fingers. There are lizards and a wealth of butterflies. And in terms of birds, there was the striking Bahama Mockingbird.
The Bahama Mockingbird is larger than the Northern Mockingbird (the one you see flashing its tail as it patrols its territory in your garden). The Bahama Mockingbird sings with a little more urgency and in a slightly deeper tone. Unlike the common Northern one, it does not mimic other birds, or other sounds. It sings its own song and sticks to it.
Like the dry forest itself, the Bahama Mockingbird is quite rare; it lives only in Jamaica (an endemic species) and only in one or two specific areas – these dry coastal areas of Portland Bight and Hellshire. Both are in the Portland Bight Protected Area. I remember a 2016 BirdLife trip to Hellshire – where housing developments have been encroaching on the landscape. In Portland Bight, an increase in limestone quarrying is also a threat. It is no surprise to learn that the Bahama Mockingbird’s population is indicated as “decreasing” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
As the evening deepened, we walked back up. Some of us gathered on the deck. We talked. And talked. Although “bird people” are supposed to keep quiet, so we do not disturb the birds, we do have a tendency to chat.
One group of birds that was not in the least disturbed were the Turkey Vultures (or “John Crows”). Looking up, we realized that there were at least a dozen of them at any one time on the metal structure that served as a lighthouse, above us. As the light blinked red in the gloom, the birds were hunched and soundless, each preserving its own space. Early the next morning, they departed one by one, gliding low over the forest below, soaring higher, and occasionally returning to their iron roost.
Now, I looked this up. In case you didn’t know, there is more than one collective noun for vultures. A gathering like this is called a “venue of vultures,” but if they are flying together it is a “kettle of vultures.” Vultures feeding together on a carcass are collectively a “wake of vultures.”
The following day, we saw a Red-tailed Hawk soaring with them over the wetlands below, but it was hard to capture on video. These enigmatic birds are common and widespread across the Caribbean and Central America, and further north too. If you find them as fascinating as I do, take a read of this wonderful article I found recently.
So…We ate. We drank. We played highly competitive games of Scrabble. We went to bed.
The following day was a blurry dawn, followed by a serious hike down the road, as the sun rose higher in the sky. There was so much to see, hear and absorb. There were clusters of golden-brown butterflies with silver undersides soaking up the early morning sun (Tropical Silverspots). So, what would be the collective noun for butterflies? Ornithologist Ann Sutton called them, “an ecstasy of butterflies!” Yes, that works. The mockingbirds sang, and we clocked no less than twenty bird species in a couple of hours.
The forest was a surprising little world of its own. I could have wandered on much further, but the sunlight was growing stronger, and there was always the walk back uphill. I needed another cup of John Fletcher’s deliciously strong black coffee, too. Indeed, breakfast was lavish, including ackee and salt fish, plantains, the lightest, sweetest “Johnny cakes” (fried dumplings) ever…and more. Of course, when you are in the country and breathing lots of fresh air, the appetite grows, and everything tastes good.
We were reluctant to leave the hilltop after breakfast, and lingered for a while.
Driving very slowly back towards Portland Cottage was of necessity quite leisurely. The road was bumpy, and besides we were in no hurry to leave this quiet forest. Morning sunlight flickered through the prickly trees on one side of the road. On the other, swamps with glass like mirrors slid by; and occasionally, the calm sea appeared, its surface barely wrinkled. It was a fine morning, and again we were beset with butterflies: white ones this time, following the car we were following in a cloud. A new “ecstasy” of butterflies. We stopped and started, taking photos.
And the birds? Here are a few pictures that I took on the way home, from the car. I am not a great photographer, but am rather proud of the oddly-named Clapper Rail (far left) – supposedly a secretive bird, but I caught him dabbling in the mud. The other three are (left to right): an elegant Reddish Egret (dark morph), which was also a “first” for me; a bird (Lesser Yellowlegs?) which I have not yet been able to identify (someone, please!); and a Blue-winged Teal, taking a bath (there was a small group of these charming ducks).
The Portland Bight Protected Area, encompassing much of the remaining dry limestone forest on the island, is a fragile landscape. It has been battered in recent decades by storms. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was perhaps the most vicious. One tall tree stood out above the others, wreathed in cactus and clumps of wild orchids. Our guide suggested this was probably an “Ivan survivor.”
Before too long, we were back on the highway, and home by lunchtime. The mystical world of wetlands, sea and forest seemed so near…and yet so far, now.
We are a small island. This Protected Area must remain protected.