Jamaica is a birding hotspot, but there’s more to it than that

You know, I am a “bird nerd.” I am missing most of the organized birdwatching trips – but thank God for our yard, which is overgrown and somewhat wooded and brings us pleasant bird sightings on a daily basis. Today was a stately White-crowned Pigeon at our bird bath; a Vervain hummingbird dipping his tiny wings on a leaf wet with rain; and what I think was a female Black-and-White Warbler, a migratory bird, flitting around in our white bougainvillea.

As the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival is well under way (while migratory birds are still around) we turn our attention to those birds who are with us “24/7” – and are, in fact, exclusive to our island. They live here, and nowhere else in the world. They are our endemic birds.

Jamaican birders have great smiles. Here Ricardo is answering questions after his presentation.

Owner/operator of Arrowhead Tours in Jamaica and Past President of BirdLife Jamaica Ricardo Miller – a most enthusiastic and exciting bird guide on many of our field trips – gave a delightful talk to the London Natural History Society last week. There is no doubt that Jamaica is a remarkable island for birds. We have 29 endemic bird species (more than any other Caribbean island) and many that stay with us over the winter months, leaving by the end of April and returning in September.

But what is a “biodiversity hotspot”? Well, biodiversity means a wide variety of life in all its forms – from tiny beetles to tree ferns to large mammals, and everything in between. These are Earth’s “most biologically rich areas,” says Miller; and these are terrestrial, or land areas – not marine.

However, there is a negative side. A hotspot would have to be threatened, and would have to have lost some 70 percent of its primary native vegetation, in order to be so named – in other words, it has warning signs around it, rather like an accident hotspot. It would also have to contain at least 1,500 species of endemic plants. Plants are the basis of everything. The Caribbean is one such global hotspot – and it has over 8,000 types of endemic plants. So, the entire region is actually threatened.

Jamaica has incredible biodiversity, with hundreds of species. Here we have: the endemic and endangered Giant Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio homerus), the largest butterfly in the Americas; an endemic Anole; the endemic Jamaican Boa, our largest snake; the Critically Endangered Jamaican Iguana; and the endemic Jamaican Hutia or Coney, our only remaining land mammal.

What does endemic mean again? It has the unfortunate ring of “pandemic” about it – but it really means that the special bird, or beetle, or fern lives in one place and nowhere else. So there are many species endemic to the Caribbean region (for example, the Near Threatened West Indian Whistling-Duck) – and many that live only in Jamaica.

As of 2000, Jamaica had some 70 percent tree cover; but only eight percent is the original “primary” forest. So, we are still green… but most of our forests are disturbed – and threatened with total elimination, thanks to human activities.

I didn’t know that Jamaica was originally three islands – that is, many millions of years ago! Most of our birds at that time came from Central America via the mid-Caribbean archipelago. Ancient birds did some island hopping! Ricardo imparted this knowledge during the presentation. Could this be how the Streamertail hummingbird came to have a black bill (beak) in one part of the island and a red one in the other?

Our endemic parrots (left to right): Yellow-billed Parrot, Black-billed Parrot, and Olive-throated Parakeet – which we now recognize as the Jamaican Parakeet, our newest endemic (as of 2014) – separate from the Central American parakeet.

Some 260 different bird species are regularly seen in Jamaica – if you take a look at eBird, where we all keep a record of our sightings (it’s called “citizen science”) you will realize this. These include at least fifty species that migrate here for the winter months, and a handful that come for the summer from South America. The major four summer migrants are the Least Tern, a shorebird that nests in wetlands; the Gray Kingbird (“Petchary” is its local name – and the name I adopted for my blog!), the “John Chewit” or Black-whiskered Vireo; and the Antillean Nighthawk (or “Gimme Mi Bit”). The local names for the last three reflect the calls of these birds. I heard the Petchary, from a distance, a few days ago and thought “Summer is here…”

Just a few of our lovely endemic birds: Jamaican Peewee, Jamaican Woodpecker, Ring-tailed Pigeon, Arrowhead Warbler, Crested Quail Dove, Jamaican Spindalis, Jamaican Owl. Yes, they are all our very own special Jamaican birds. You won’t find them anywhere else.

Our Protected Areas are critical for the biodiversity of our island. We were really happy to hear recently that the Black River Morass (as well as the Pedro Cays) has been declared a Protected Area. I really hope that the resources are there – both human and otherwise – to ensure that they stay protected, maintained, and nurtured. The largest is the Portland Bight Protected Area, including Goat Islands and Hellshire Hills, which I have written about several times. Then there is the Cockpit Country, which has been threatened continually by bauxite mining for years. It is now a Protected Area – although not as large as stakeholders had wanted, and there are unaddressed concerns – so that may not be the end of the story. One of the areas excluded from the recently declared Protected Area, Stewart Town, was highly recommended by Ricardo (and by a British attendee at the presentation). It is an area that Ricardo described as “gold” for birdwatchers.

In February 2019, this wonderful Kirtland’s Warbler showed up in a banding area in St. Elizabeth. A young U.S.-based researcher, Alicia Brunner, was thrilled to bits. This was a first for this bird in Jamaica.

Ricardo made a valid point during the discussion: Jamaicans think a tropical rainforest habitat is “it” – but dry limestone forest is hot, uncomfortable and not valued as highly. Ricardo believes that dry limestone forests – especially those on the coast – are much more threatened than our rainforests, by housing developments, for example, in the Hellshire Hills. However, they are important ecosystems – dry and rugged, but to me lovely and remarkable, with their spiky cactus, the pitted white limestone rocks, and their very own particular species, such as the rare and beautiful Bahama Mockingbird.

Footnote: One British attendee at the YouTube program observed that, after a family holiday in Jamaica, he realized that the average tourist hotel does not encourage visitors to explore the island’s incredibly diverse and beautiful natural world – or even have hummingbird feeders for guests to enjoy. Ricardo Miller pointed out that smaller boutique hotels are in fact promoting eco-tourism; the large all-inclusives are unlikely to take it on.

Forested hills surrounding Stewart Town. (Photo: Wendy Lee/Caribbean Birding Trail)

This is an example of why Jamaica could do so much more to encourage eco-tourism of all kinds, linked with community tourism. The regional NGO BirdsCaribbean has been promoting birding routes and local guides across the region for years through its ongoing Caribbean Birding Trail project. The tours that Wendy Lee conducts in Stewart Town, for example, are not only about “Look at this bird!” but also about the plants and trees that the birds make their home in, besides other wildlife. It’s about the entire environment. And, importantly, these guided tours are about people. They are about community, indigenous knowledge and tradition, all linked to Nature. Something many tourists would pay a good buck or two to see and experience for themselves! Please take note, Minister Bartlett!

Thank you, Ricardo Miller and the London Natural History Society, for helping us to think about these issues some more. These are the kind of messages that birds can bring to you, if you are ready to receive them.

Tree in dry limestone forest, Portland Bight, Clarendon. (My photo)

8 thoughts on “Jamaica is a birding hotspot, but there’s more to it than that

    1. Yes, indeed! There is quite a lot going on. There are many “bird nerds” like me, or simply those who love birds, which comes to the same thing!

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  1. Absolutely fascinating. information. I had no idea that there were so many endeminc species of birds in the island!

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  2. Emma, you live on the best island..I love to read how happy you are there. It would be amazing to hop back to see you both, maybe one day. Hope you are all really well and life is treating you well? We are still in our strange Medieval village in SW France, I am hoping this is the last year we will be open for business as I feel Etienne at 71 needs to stop! (He had a double heart bypass, Covid and Hepatitis C last year but has bounced back and seems to be in really good form!) This winter I was in Sussex for 5 months. I really cannot be in this tiney French village during the winter any more, I’ve lived here ull time for 22 years..now I need some time in England ! It was fantastic. I loved every minute of seeing friends and some family. Not many people I Know see Liz and Boykes, I don’t even know if they still live in the village? I’d love to hear how you are, even better fly to us in France if you feel like it….Think of you often. Much love Lucinda

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