Monday, June 20, 2011

Jamaica: Chi Chi Bud Oh!

Chi chi bud oh!
Some a dem a holler, some a bawl.

So begins an old Jamaican song, a catalogue of Jamaican birds by their local names:

Some a John Crow [Turkey Vulture]
Some a Kling Kling [Greater Antillean Grackle]....

Here, in somewhat the same spirit, is a catalogue of birds from the north coast and the hinterland.

Let's start with the gaulins [herons].  They're the same ones you can find in Florida: here, at the mouth of the river by the Shaw Park Resort, are Great Egrets (Ardea alba), Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) and a greyish immature Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens).
Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) have gotten used to visiting the tables at hotel patios: an ideal opportunity for portrait photography at breakfast time.

This Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was hanging around a very touristy shark-feeding pool, obviously for reasons of its own.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons (Nyctanassa violacea) are known as "crabier" in the French-speaking islands of the West Indies, and as Crab Catcher in Jamaica.  It lives up to its popular names (usually at dusk or very early in the morning).  This immature bird greeted us just outside the door of our room.
In Jamaica the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) is sometimes called the Killy Killy - in imitation of its call, not in reference to its predatory habits!

Zenaida Doves (Zenaida aurita; Pea Doves to Jamaicans, I'm not sure why) are common, tame birds, and frequent visitors (like this one) to hotel patios.  This is quite a change from the days of Philip Henry Gosse, whose "The Birds of Jamaica" (1847) reported that "Few birds are more difficult of approach".  Of course Gosse was going after the birds with a gun, not a pair of binoculars or a handful of bread crumbs!

The common large pigeon of the coast is the White-crowned (Patagioenas leucocephala), locally known as the Bald Pate. 

Jamaica once had at least one species of macaw, gone so long ago that not even specimens exist.  Today it has two endemic amazon parrots, but near the coast you are more likely to see the Olive-throated Parakeet (Aratinga nana), a bird that also occurs in Mexico.

One of my favourite birds as a child was the ungainly looking Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani), which, despite  being a sort of cuckoo, looks rather more like a poorly-assembled parrot.  It is known as the Savanna Blackbird in Jamaica.  Anis are highly sociable birds, almost always in family groups.

For most people, the bird of Jamaica is its national symbol, Gosse's "gem of Jamaican ornithology", the Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) or Doctor Bird.  The name "Doctor Bird" is probably a reference to its needle-like bill, though May Jeffrey-Smith, in my childhood bible "Bird-watching in Jamaica", suggested that its black crest may have reminded some of the black top hats old-fashioned doctors used to wear.

One of the nicest things about this splendid hummingbird is that it is not only gorgeous and endemic, but common and widespread - the two don't often go hand in hand these days.  This is an immature male, lacking the fully-developed streamers of an adult.

A strong contender for the joint titles of prettiest, cutest and most interesting bird on Jamaica is the Jamaican Tody (Todus todus). Jamaicans call it the Robin Redbreast. Prettiness and cuteness are in the eye of the beholder, so judge for yourself. Interest, for someone like me interested in bird systematics and evolution, is another matter. Todies belong to their own unique family, entirely confined to the Greater Antilles.  There are five species: the Jamaican Tody, plus one each on Cuba and Puerto Rico and two, largely separated by altitude, on Hispaniola.

Todies are related to kingfishers and motmots. Birds rather like todies, members of the extinct family Primobucconidae, were widespread in the Northern Hemisphere until they were supplanted, About 30 million years ago, by the arrival from the south of the songbirds (Passeriformes). Birding must have been quite delightful back then.

Another highly attractive endemic is the Jamaican Woodpecker (Melanerpes radiolatus), one of a number of related birds scattered about the West Indies and, in fact, throughout much of the Americas.  Like many other Jamaican endemics, it is, fortunately, still common and widespread.  This is a female.

Jamaica boasts eight breeding species of tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae), one of the largest tyrannid faunas in the West Indies.  The Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) is one of two common Jamaican kingbirds.  It is a resident on the island; the other species, the Grey Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis) or Petchary, is a migrant that had departed Jamaica by the time of our November visit.

Jamaica is the only Caribbean island with three species of the genus Myiarchus - including, like the three bears, a big one, a middle-sized one and a little one.  This is the baby of the group, the endemic Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris).  The local name for Myiarchus in Jamaica is Tom Fool, and this species, accordingly, is the Little Tom Fool.

In my younger days, Jamaican Crows (Corvus jamaicensis)were pretty much confined to the highlands.  In recent years they have increased along the north coast, and to my surprise they were common around our hotel. They are particularly noisy birds, producing, among other things, a high-pitched yammering - "like a turkey being strangled", according to Ann Haynes-Sutton et al.'s "A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica" - that gives them their local name of Jabbering Crow.

Every tourist in Jamaica, bird lover or not, knows the Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger), an inveterate scavenger at poolside tables.  The Kling Kling - obviously named for its voice - is one of the most familiar of Jamaican lowland birds.  It is rather small and short-tailed as grackles go - the upper bird seems to be losing his tail altogether!

Auntie Katie (or Ma Katie) is the Jamaican Oriole (Icterus leucopteryx). Though perhaps not one of the most striking of the American orioles (no relation to the orioles of the Old World), I find its combination of black, white and lemon-lime quite attractive. Despite its name, it is not quite an endemic; it is also found on Isla San Andres, and a somewhat brighter subspecies once lived on Grand Cayman, where it was last seen in 1967.

One of the most widespread and successful birds in the West Indies is the Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola).  I (and an anonymous commentator) have already had things to say about the distinctive-looking Bananaquits of the Bahamas and the more typical ones of St. Thomas.  Jamaica is home to the nominate subspecies (Coereba flaveola flaveola), which is endemic to the island and common everywhere.

Finally, some visitors.  The West Indies are a major wintering ground for many of the species of wood warblers (Parulidae) that breed in eastern North America.  In fact they may be more critical in some ways than the breeding sites, because the birds are more concentrated in the smaller area of the islands.  A hectare of Jamaican forest may hold several times as many birds as a hectare of prime breeding territory.  This is a Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor), common in Jamaica despite the utter absence of prairies (it likes mangroves in particular).  This may not be an ideal portrait, but it does show off the amount of white in the tail.

Jamaica may be the most important wintering area for one of its commonest migrant visitors (and one of the handsomest and most charming of the lot), the Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens)

The Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina), another favourite of mine, is a good example of how important wintering grounds can be.  It has a tubular tongue, an adaptation for sipping nectar - something it must rarely get a chance to do on its breeding grounds in northern coniferous forests, but an important part of its feeding behaviour on its wintering grounds.  Though it breeds well to the north of even my own home in Canada, it has evolved - so it seems - for the tropics.

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