31 January 2013

Jamaica

This winter break was one of the best breaks I have ever had. Just when I thought it couldn't get better, it did, over and over again.

As I wrote in a semi-delirious state a while back, I was in Jamaica recently working on an American Redstart re-sighting project in the parish of Westmoreland. Jamaica is an amazing country, with a stark contrast between the resort dominated coastal communities and the extremely impoverished areas of the rest of the island. Where I lived was nestled high in the mountains near Betheltown, where we woke to the sun rising over the imposing limestone koppies and the impenetrable forests the Maroons once made their home. Every morning we climbed through the tick infested cattle pastures to the nearby mountain plot where our boss has been conducting research for years. It was a strange feeling hacking our way into the brush to find pink-flagged trees with our plot location designations on them, and it was not long before I came to know the area like the back of my hand. Every day, armed with my binoculars, machete, radio, and peanut butter and guava jelly sandwich, I headed into the woods for 6-7 hours to watch and wait for redstarts to see if I could spot their color bands. The interim was a fascinating opportunity to become intimately familiar with the island's unique avifauna. Jamaican Becards whistled in the trees, Jamaican Orioles clamored along the vines, and the occasional Jamaican Spindalis pair fed in the canopy. On rare occasion I was lucky enough to flush such elusive birds as Ruddy Quail-Dove and Caribbean Dove, and even got a second of eye contact with an impressive Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo. In all, I saw 39 new species of bird during the trip and heard one more (the sneaky Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo).

The Jamaican Tody (Todus todus), a tiny denizen of the forest understory, was a common sight in our study area. Their intriguing "brrp" flight sounds and harsh calls were very unbecoming of such an adorable bird, and they often flew in close as I waited for redstarts to appear. Todies are part of the family Todidae, a family that today only consists of five species in the genus Todus, all of which are restricted to the Greater Antilles.

This Jamaican Oriole (Icterus leucopteryx leucopteryx) was feeding in flowers in front of our porch on our last day on the island. These ubiquitous orioles where always fun to watch as they (sometimes ungracefully) foraged in the trees. This species, despite its name, is not a Jamaican endemic. Two other subspecies existed; one, bairdi, occurred only on Grand Cayman and was extinct by 1970, and the other, lawrencii, still persists on the tiny island of San Andrés in the southern Caribbean Sea.

This male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius sparveroides) was a common sight outside our house, as he forages with his mate in the yard. This surprisingly white individual is part of the "Cuban" group of American Kestrels.

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