2019 Was a Fulfilling Year for BirdLife Jamaica: Part 1

To be honest (from my personal perspective) 2019 wasn’t a particularly encouraging year. It seems the only thing to do nowadays is to “play it safe” – something, perhaps, that I am not very good at, myself. There were some disappointments and frustrations – and worst of all, That Man is still President of the United States, unbelievably.

Having said that, there were some highly satisfying and joyful encounters – and many of these involved birds, and people like myself who love birds. Believe me, they are very good people to hang out with; and they add so much to the birding experience. BirdLife Jamaica (BLJ) flourished in 2019, and I truly expect it to continue the trend next year.

What were the highlights? There were actually several. Although I did not participate in all the excursions, we were able to join many of them.

These dapper Royal Terns (with the orange beaks) and Sandwich Terns each had their own rusty perch at the Old Coal Wharf in Port Royal. I presume all this has gone by now, replaced by the shiny new floating cruise ship pier. (My photo)

We started in February with the Caribbean Waterbird Census – an annual event supported by BirdsCaribbean and others. The count coincided for us with World Wetlands Day (February 2 – the 2020 theme is Wetlands and Biodiversity). We drove down to Port Royal. The town itself (a future cruise ship port) was shabby and unimpressive, but the birds did not let us down. I spent some time circling a bush with a colleague who’s a great photographer, to get the best possible angle for a picture of a Yellow Warbler – that gorgeous bright dash of pure gold. They like scrubby seaside areas and unlike most other warblers in Jamaica, the Yellow Warbler is a resident. Now, the Palisadoes mangrove system on Kingston Harbour is not in great shape, although it is a Ramsar site of International Importance. It has been sadly degraded, choked with solid waste and affected by the Harbour’s pollution. Now there is a further intrusion in the shape of a floating cruise ship pier.” The spot where we counted dozens of seabirds in February – the Old Coal Wharf – has since been built on as part of this development.

Gathering in Castleton Gardens in March. (Photo: BirdLife Jamaica)

We were off to Castleton Botanical Gardens in St. Mary in March – not far along the winding Junction Road heading north from Kingston. The gardens progress down to the Wag Water river on one side, while on the other they ascend the hill side, spreading out comfortably. The two sides of the garden are quite different, divided by the main road where there’s a bar, a large pot of soup on the fire, and a police station with a fake “policeman” watching traffic outside. The old post office has completely fallen down. There are some very unusual plants at Castleton, and birds aplenty.

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John with the BLJ group at Hope Gardens, on the day of his birthday party. (Photo: BirdLife Jamaica)

The BLJ family merged with the actual “real-life” family of our beloved bird guru John Fletcher on April 7, to celebrate John’s 90th birthday at Pages Restaurant in Hope Gardens (itself a favorite birding spot). It was a noisy, and at times emotional occasion. John is a man with a thoughtful manner, quiet humour and a deep love of birds; he always has so much to share from his wealth of experience and careful observation.  In fact, he is one of the pillars on which BLJ rests, having methodically kept the group’s newsletters (in broadsheet format) going over many years. Did I also mention the delicious, strong coffee that he regularly dispenses at the end of birding expeditions? But I digress. The event was more than a party. Members of John’s family, from near and far, were there as well as many, many birders.

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John Fletcher holds his gift book prepared by his birding family at his 90th birthday celebrations in April. (Photo: BirdLife Jamaica)

A lot of planning and hard work had gone into the celebration. BLJ member, former President and bird guide par excellence Ricardo Miller presented John with a beautiful framed carving of a Jamaican Tody (John’s favorite bird). For weeks previously, a group of us had worked on a commemorative “coffee table” book for John, including birthday wishes from BLJ members, biographical snippets gleaned from an in-depth interview, a citation from BirdsCaribbean – and superb photographs. The end result was quite something. It was a great piece of teamwork putting it together, and we think John was impressed. We were impressed with ourselves!

BLJ President Damany Calder (right) has the close attention of a group of students at the Earth Day 2019 celebrations at the Natural History Museum of Jamaica in April. (My photo)

Later that month, the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (NHMJ) at the Institute of Jamaica celebrated Earth Day. The guest speaker was our brilliant young President, Damany Calder. The NHMJ’s annual Earth Day competition for schools produced beautiful photographs, eloquent poems and imaginative art work, including models, posters and more. Damany was the center of attention after his talk – students clustered round to learn more, asking questions. The visit also reminded him of his own days as a schoolboy, visiting the Institute! Damany is an incredible mine of information on all kinds of creatures, not only birds. If you follow his Instagram account @wildlifejamaica you will see what I mean.

John (right) with birding colleagues at the Yallahs Salt Ponds. (Photo: Ricardo Miller)

In April we were still celebrating John Fletcher’s birthday month, and we joined him at his favorite (and original) birding spot, the Yallahs Salt Ponds in St. Thomas. Damany and Ricardo were our guides as we explored this unique landscape: the changing colors of the waters, the dried bones of fish, the green hills folded into a backdrop. Then, surprisingly, we came to a pristine beach lapped by calm waves. For BLJ member Patsy, it was remarkable to learn about the seabirds, so many of them migrating or passing through to and from very cold places. A Wilson’s Plover was nesting on the ground (and upset with us getting too close). We spotted 21 species in two or three hours.

Ryan gently holds a very irate little bird at Font Hill (My photo).

Our visit to Font Hill in St. Elizabeth (May 4th and 5th – it was an overnight stay) was a remarkable learning experience. It was quite a small group of us out there in the field with Alicia Brunner (a doctoral student at Cornell University – you can find her great tweets @AliciaBrunner) and colleagues for spending time with us; and to BLJ President Damany Calder for organizing it. Alicia is studying the impact of climate change on migratory birds, with support from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, DC. Research has been ongoing in Font Hill for years. As BLJ member Ryan says, “It was definitely memorable for me,” as we learned about mist netting to catch birds safely, collecting data and the technology used to collect it. Apart from that, we spent some time chilling out at a small hotel near Black River, where a Grey Plover kept us company, patrolling the shoreline, and pelicans soared out on the glistening waves. It was very warm, and very quiet.

Our friend the Grey Plover finds something nice to eat along the shoreline near Black River, St. Elizabeth. These birds breed in the Arctic tundra and spend their winters further south. (My photo)

If you are interested in joining BirdLife Jamaica, you can drop a line to birdlifejamaica@gmail.com and ask to be added to our mailing list. You can follow us on Twitter at @birdlifejamaica and we are also on Facebook and Instagram. The annual membership fee is currently a modest J$1,000 per annum (there are additional fees for specific outings; and we always carpool, if you cannot drive).

Part 2 of BirdLife Jamaica’s amazing year to follow shortly!


John Fletcher walking along the beach during our visit to Yallahs Salt Ponds. (My photo)



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