Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jamaica: On Ecclesdown Road

The further east you go in Jamaica, the more lush and wet the island becomes. For birders, this means that to see some of Jamaica's special birds - the ones confined, more or less, to humid forest - you must make a trip either to the Blue Mountains east of Kingston or to the lush forests in the foothills of the John Crow Mountains, along Ecclesdown Road east of Port Antonio, where you can also see one of the island's most localized endemics, the Black-billed Streamertail (Trochilus scitulus). I opted for two mornings (11-12 October 2010) at Ecclesdown Road.

Though I have been visiting Jamaica on and off for years since my happy year there as a child, I still "needed" the streamertail and two forest specialties, the Jamaican Blackbird (Nesopsar nigerrimus) and the Crested Quail-Dove or Mountain Witch (Geotrygon versicolor). Thanks to my guide Wayne Murdoch, I saw all three, with spectacular looks at the quail-dove - a real beauty - on our second day. Unfortunately, I missed getting their photographs, so this account will have to be confined to the numerous other delights to be had along Ecclesdown Road.

Wayne found this sign very amusing. I mean, what other kind of traffic would you expect on a road like this? I hope Ecclesdown stays this way,of course; worse for drivers,but infinitely better for naturalists!

Among the forest trees that line the road is Jamaica's national tree, the blue mahoe (Talipariti elatum). As you can see,the flowers are not blue; the name comes from blue-green streaks in its wood.

The blue mahoe is a member of the mallow or hibiscus family (Malvaceae), and shares with other members of the family an attractive (if a trifle coarse-looking) flower with a long,protruding pistil surrounded by a fused ring of stamens.

Tall stands of bamboo fill spaces between the forest trees, and provide shelter for shyer forest creatures - the one Crested Quail-Dove I saw was in the depths of a bamboo thicket.

Heliconias are popular garden plants in the tropics, and you can see a lot of them around Jamaican hotels. Up in the forest, though, grows the native species, Heliconia caribaea. As with all Heliconias (and their Asian relatives the bananas),the flowers are far less striking than the colourful, stiff bracts that surround, and often hide, them.

This is Pothomorphe peltata (Piperaceae), a widespread tropical American species that has been examined for its extracts, which have anti-inflammatory properties, and its essential oils (many thanks to Dr. Thomas Croat of the Missouri Botanic Garden for identifying this and the plants in the photos that follow).  There is only one other species in the genus.

The aroid family (Araceae) is another contributor to the exotic look of Jamaica's forests - at least from the point of view of a temperate North American, used only to the familiar jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and skunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  Instead of skulking on the ground, Jamaican philodendrons scale the forest trees (philodendron means "tree-loving") and spread their enormous leaves high into the canopy.  This is Philodendron lacerum.

This one is five-finger (Syngonium auritum), native to Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola.  The inflorescence is typically aroid, a flower-bearing stalk or spadix framed by an encircling colourful spathe - like a giant jack-in-the-pulpit, as a matter of fact.  Syngoniums, or arrowhead vines, are grown as house plants, but they look far more impressive in the forest where they have room to stretch out to their full size.  There are some 39 species in the genus; in this one the spathe is distinctively longer than the spadix.  Dr. Croat has reviewed the genus, for taxonomically-inclined readers.

This, shrub, with its handsome red berries, is a species of Ardisia (Myrsinaceae).  The genus (collectively known as coralberries) has over 250 species, scattered throughout the Americas, Asia and Australasia.  The Jamaican species include some Critically Endangered endemics.

This fallen flower on the trail has apparently dropped from a horse-eye bean vine (Mucuna sp., Fabaceae), but whether it belongs to a native or an introduced species I cannot say; some species have been grown in Jamaica for years as fallow crops on banana plantations.  The flower is a lovely thing, though, whether native or exotic.

On to the Animal Kingdom!  This is the Jamaican race of the Prickly Ash or Pelaus Swallowtail (Papilio pelaus pelaus), apparently a rather uncommon hill country butterfly. Jamaica, by the way, is the home of the largest swallowtail in the New World, the endemic Homerus Swallowtail (Papilio homerus) - a much rarer and more localized insect than this one, and one I have yet to see.
the Julia or Flambeau (Dryas iulia delila) is one of the commonest and easiest to identify of Caribbean butterflies. The Jamaican race lacks the black trim of some of the other island races.

Skippers are usually miserable to identify, but here is an exception: the Tropical Checquered Skipper (Pyrgus oileus oileus), apparently a male as the long, hairy scales at the base of the wing are white rather than brown.

I didn't know it until I began preparing this blog entry, but Jamaica has one of the richest land snail faunas in the world. A 2005 study out of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia identified 561 species (including slugs).  All but 56 are found nowhere else.  Gary Rosenberg, who led the study, kindly identified this little fellow as a member of the endemic genus Zaphysema in the Family Sagdidae, either Zaphysema olivaceum or Zaphysema tenerrimum (it's not always possible to be sure from a photograph).  The Sagdidae is a family of lung-equipped (i.e., pulmonate), air-breathing land snails that reaches its peak of diversity in the Greater Antilles.

The Academy, by the way, has an honourable Jamaican connection. Many years ago it was home to the leading authority on West Indian birds, author of the first field guide to the region. A novelist living in Jamaica had a copy, and liked the ornithologist's name so much he wrote and asked if he could borrow it for the hero of his next book. The ornithologist agreed, and the rest is history. Oh, yes - the novelist's name was Ian Fleming, and the ornithologist's name was James Bond.

I must be one of the few people who knew about the real James Bond (I used to borrow his guide from the local library in St. Ann's Bay as a child back in 1957) before I discovered the fictional one. I actually met Dr Bond, a charming man, in 1966 at the International Ornithological Congress in Oxford. I'm sorry to say that the last time I visited the Academy there was not a mention of Bond, and the staff at the front desk had never, apparently, heard of him. Sic transit gloria, I guess.

The Crested Quail-Dove is not Jamaica's only endemic pigeon. This is the other one: the Ring-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas caribaea), a large arboreal bird, once (and still?) much sought-after by hunters.

Jamaica has two endemic cuckoos, known locally as the Old Man Bird and the Old Woman Bird. This is the larger of the two, The Old Man Bird or Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo (Hyetornis pluvialis). An arboreal bird with a long, white-tipped tail, it seems to be the local equivalent of the malkohas of Asia.

Jamaican Todies (Todus todus) are tame, even aggressive, little birds, and I never tire of them. They are common in forests throughout Jamaica, and the forests along Ecclesdown Road were no exception.

One of the odder recipients of Jamaican bird names is the Jamaican Becard (Pachyramphus niger). The male and female are quite different, and each sex has it's own name. This is a male, known as a judy. The female, in a neat bit of gender-bending, is the mountain dick.

One of my favourites among Jamaica's endemic birds is the handsome White-chinned Thrush (Turdus aurantius), known here by a variety of names including Chick-Me-Chick, Jumping Dick and the one I learned as a child, the Hopping Dick - a name with a lot more personality than "white-chinned thrush". As its names suggest, it spends a lot of time hopping on the ground, unlike Jamaica's other endemic thrush, the more arboreal and shyer White-eyed Thrush or Glass Eye (Turdus jamaicensis). Though a North American would surely think of it as the Jamaican version of the American Robin, it's closest relatives are surely the Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) and it's sadly extinct counterpart, the Grand Cayman Thrush (Turdus ravidus), though these used to be included in a genus of their own, Mimocichla.

The Arrow-headed Warbler (Dendroica pharetra) is endemic to Jamaica, where it is variously known as the Ant Eater, Ants Bird or Logwood Chipper (possibly through confusion with the similar-looking Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), a migrant that behaves rather like a nuthatch or creeper and has the same local names.  The Arrow-headed, though,is an active canopy forager (like many wood warblers) that avoids the tree trunks preferred by the Black-and-white.

The closest relative of this bird is the Elfin Woods Warbler (Dendroica angelae) of Puerto Rico, a bird only discovered in the 1970s.  I have always thought it odd that there is no equivalent species on the intervening island of Hispaniola, which is much larger and higher than either Jamaica or Puerto Rico. Was there one once, in the past, that disappeared before ornithologists got there?

The bird known as "Goldfinch" in Jamaica is the Jamaican Spindalis (Spindalis nigricephala), largest and most colourful of it's genus. Spindalis is pretty much confined to the West Indies (plus Cozumel) and the Jamaican species is an endemic.

All of the Spindalises were once "lumped" into a single species, known as the Stripe-headed Tanager (Spindalis zena) though they probably are not, in fact, really tanagers.  What they actually are, though, remains a matter for some doubt.

Of all the Jamaican endemics, the Orangequit (Euneornis campestris) is the one that has, over the years, given ornithologists the most headaches. It did not seem to have any close relatives, and did not very much resemble the other nectar-feeding birds with which it was traditionally associated - birds formerly placed in the Coerebidae, a family now containing only a single species, the ubiquitous Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola). Most of the Coerebids have now found a home either among the tanagers or the emberizine finches, but the orangequit remained a problem.

Ornithologists were being fooled, or distracted, by the Orangequit's curved bill and brush-tipped tongue, adaptations to nectar-feeding that have evolved many times in songbirds. They should have been paying more attention to its plumage. The Orangequit is a deep greyish-blue (its alternate Jamaican name is blue baize) with a dull orange spot on it's chin (this juvenile, one of many Orangequits I saw foraging in the canopy along Ecclesdown Road, doesn't have one yet). That should have reminded people of another group of West Indian birds, similarly marked about the head with much the same colour. It didn't, because their bills seemed too different.

Here is the Jamaican version of the group - a young Greater Antillean Bullfinch (Loxigilla violacea). Jamaicans call it the black sparrow. The Orangequit seems to be a nectar-feeding bullfinch - and, I hasten to add, this does not mean that it has anything to do with the fringillid bullfinches of the Old World. The West Indian bullfinches and the Orangequit seem to be part of a radiation of Caribbean emberizine finches that, among other things, all build domed nests. The most famous members of the group, in fact, do not live in the Caribbean but in the Pacific, a vestige of the days when Panama lay beneath the sea and only the ocean separated the West Indies from the Islands where these birds now live. They are the Darwin's finches of the Galapagos, a place I have never been. For now, though, I'll settle for their pretty, if unassuming, cousins from Jamaica.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing. Very informative! Great photos.