Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wrapping Up

Hi everybody. I am back from Jamaica and home in North Carolina. Just a few things to wrap up...

Below are links to two Jamaica photo albums, one of birds, one of everything else. Enjoy!

Jamaican Birds

Jamaican Thangs

I am now off to the north slope of Alaska, where I will be gathering data on the breeding ecology of shorebirds on the tundra. We will be camped on the Canning River in the Arctic Circle for 7 weeks... let the adventure begin. So long!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sights Along the Road

Driving around Jamaica in itself is an entertaining venture. If you can overlook the hair-raising, life-threatening drivers, there is beauty and intrigue at every corner. Here are some of the drive-by photos I accumulated this Spring.
A lovely pair of Saffron Finches admire themselves in the rear-view mirror. Natives of South America, these guys have become a part of Jamaica's avifauna in the past few centuries.
In Portland Ridge, an inquisitive Bahama Mockingbird inspects itself in the windows. This specialty is found only in the arid forests of southern Jamaica, where it is locally abundant.
At Windsor, deep in the heart of Cockpit Country.
Oh Yeah!
A Royal Caribbean cruiseship arrives at Falmouth.
As we approached Kingston, more and more security vehicles began to appear. This truck was full of heavily armed men.
Pretty self-explanatory.
Graffiti in Kingston.
Anyone care to explain this one?
gully = from the streets - a la gangsta or hood, raw or real
Signs like this are all over the place.
Just another party.
Mural in Kingston.

The right man is Obama, but who is that to his left?
Michael Jackson and Bob Marley.
This is the entrance to a shanty town near Kingston.
"A me dis" is patwah for "I made this." Congrats rooster!
Goats in the trash
On the weekend, downtown Whitehouse goes bananas. Stands such as this and the one below open up and sell all sort of things.
Kew Park is the property upon which we lived. This was a wandering horse.
One of the two local donkeys.
Girls walk along the streets of Montego Bay after school.
A high end strip club in between Mo'Bay and our house.
The seating at the super delicious Border Jerk. Clients pull up, blast music out of their open car doors, mow down on some jerk chicken, wash their car, throw bones to the dogs and peel out burning rubber.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Blue Mountains and the Quest for the Wild Pine Sergeant

The Blue Mountains tower over the eastern third of Jamaica, reaching their pinnacle at 7,402 feet. Composed of igneous shale, they contrast with the rest of the mountain ranges in Jamaica which are of a limestone persuasion. Igneous takes longer to erode than limestone and thus the Blue Mountains soar above the competition. Although the lower slopes are largely deforested and developed, the upper reaches are still comparatively pristine, encompassed in the Blue Mountains/John Crow Mountains National Park. World-renowned for their coffee, beauty, and seclusion these mountains and the villages, estates, and gardens among them are one of the prized possessions of Jamaica.

Despite their allure, none of us had ever visited the Blue Mountains. This was due both to them being on the opposite side of the island of us and the requirement of navigating through Kingston, the violent capital of Jamaica, to get there. On April 15th, however, we were the furthest east we had been in Jamaica, having just finished up our field work at Portland Ridge along the southern coast. If ever we were to visit the Blue Mountains, it would be now. Shawn had surfed the internet and found a legitimate place for us to stay, so we put the mountains in the crosshairs and fired. Time to put dream into reality.

At this point let me take a moment to tell you that Ashley, Shawn, and Laura’s purpose for the trip was a bit more normal. They were looking to relax, go for a hike, maybe look for birds, and check out a new place in Jamaica. I, however, was a bit more focused and a bit more obsessed. Whereas I was very curious about the mountains and its people, deep down I had a single track mind. I had been dying to explore the Blue Mountains and had been since day one in Jamaica. I was incredibly anxious about it and completely enthused that it was about to come to fruition. But what was I so intent on?

None other than the Jamaican Blackbird, Nesospar nigerrimus, Black Banana Bird, or Wild Pine Sergeant, one of Jamaica’s most enigmatic residents. Named after its affinity for bromeliads (which are referred to as wild pines in Jamaica), this bird is a little known endemic of the remaining undisturbed forests of the central highlands. At first glance the Jamaican Blackbird is just what you would think, a black oriole-like bird. Its similarities to other blackbirds end there, however, as this is a secretive, arboreal denizen of the cloud forest. It is said to clamber unobtrusively through mosses and epiphytes, moving up and down the trunks and branches with ease.

I had looked fruitlessly for the Wild Pine Sergeant on one previous occasion, at Windsor in Cockpit Country.  Most birders who see this species do so at a place called Hardwar Gap in the Blue Mountains where they look for it along the road that cuts a scar through the forest. I however, was to search for it in a different way, on the trail to the Blue Mountain Peak itself. To get to this area, one must drive for two hours on a hellacious road, ascending some 4000 feet before arriving at the trailhead. It just so happened we were to stay at a place called the Whitfield Hall Lodge, a converted old homestead built in the 1770s. The lodge was just a few hundred yards from the trailhead.

Our drive from Portland Ridge through Kingston went smoothly. Laura and I amused ourselves in the backseat by photographing things along the roadside and poking each other while we weaved through chaotic streets, passing universities, markets, and businesses.

After making our way through Kingston and heading north into the mountains, the road’s personality changed greatly. Narrow and pothole filled, Ashley maneuvered the pick-up with care as we passed through remote towns, gaining altitude with every switchback.
This was taken by Shawn as we descended the mountain road. A mighty steep road, indeed.
Two hours passed and at last we arrived at Whitfield Hall Lodge. Upon our arrival we met the gracious caretakers Lonnette and Loxley - Loxley had been all over the island but had returned to this area take care of his ailing mother. He told us how he hikes up to the summit all the time with clients despite having had his leg pulverized underneath a truck many years ago while he was hauling bamboo. His leg was pinned for 2.5 hours until it was moved - they later wanted to insert screws and metal but he refused thinking it was too unnatural. Instead they stuffed the gap in his lower leg with cottton. He told stories of thunderballs striking the towering eucalyptus trees in front of the house and how the thunderballs are believed to be ill omens of the devil's work. The house, built 240 years ago smelled of wood smoke, ganja, bat guano, and nectar from the surrounding garden.
A view looking out over the deforested intermontane valleys of the Blue Mountains.
Arriving in the early afternoon, the weather was overcast but harmless looking. We were only staying for one night so there was no time for lollygagging. What began as a short stroll turned into a recon mission up the summit trail, walking on an old roadbed by row after row of coffee. Laura spotted a lone Blue Mountain Vireo foraging silently on the roadside low in the trees, the only individual of this hard-to-find endemic that we saw during our visit.  In a nearby flowering tree, we found a group of five migrant Indigo Buntings and a couple switchbacks later, two male Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks. 

Finally the roadbed petered out into a single track and in turn the coffee began to thin out in favor of thick grasses and scattered trees. At a batch of yellow blackberries (don’t know the name), we stumbled across a small flock of feeding endemic Ring-tailed Pigeons. This uncommon, localized bird used to be abundant throughout Jamaica's highlands but, through poaching and habitat loss, has been forced to retreat to the few forested areas left. They weighed down the tops of the bushes, the iridescent patches on their necks gleaming. The sun was falling behind the hillside as we approached the first sections of mature forest, and hopes turned to seeing Crested Quail-Doves walking along the trail. We weren’t disappointed. After sorting through a few Ruddy Quail-Doves we found a pair of CRQD strutting silently through the shadows of the next bend. I was also keen to the possibility of Jamaican Blackbirds, but knew it was a long shot. The habitat still wasn’t right, though it was getting better. I needed more time to go further, but it was getting dark and was time to return to the house.

Loxley prepared a fire in the hearth as we sat by the hurricane lamps that lit the house, reading books and reviewing notes from the day. In my eyes, the plan for tomorrow was obvious. It was my last day in the Blue Mountains, it was do or die for the Jamaican Blackbird. The recon mission earlier that afternoon was valuable; I had learned that I was within walking distance of their habitat - mature, montane forest. The game plan was to get up early, hike up the mountain as far as necessary and spend as much time up there as possible.

Around two in the morning I was awoken by rain battering the roof. It came in heavy sheets, with audible rivers of water running down the driveway. Dawn came slowly, with a steady light rain and fog rolling down the slopes. Curses! Regardless, all four of us got up at six and bided our time by making a hearty breakfast. We decided to wait the rain out, hopeful it would abate in time for us to get a hike in. It didn’t stop. At 9:30 my anxiety was at a fever pitch, I knew that we had to leave for home at 12:00 noon. My one opportunity for the Jamaican Blackbird was disappearing in front of my very eyes.

WHO WAS I KIDDING? It was time for action. The Blue Mountains get upward of 200 inches of rain of year, so rain was no surprise. So what was there left to do but adapt? ADAPT AND CONQUER.

I had taken the GPS with me the day before, and knew that the forest began 3 kilometers up the trail after an altitude gain of 450 meters. If I set out immediately I could arrive there in 30 minutes and have an hour or so to look for the blackbirds. I alerted everyone that I would be back at by noon and set out. Laura decided to come along for the first stretch, turning back as I first began to climb the steep stretches. The rain continued to fall as I kissed her goodbye. The next thing I knew my lungs were burning and spit was frothing from my mouth as I plowed up the mountainside. I stopped briefly to shed layers, stopping at a t-shirt and zipped-off shorts. After forty minutes I had passed the point where we had reached yesterday and kept on going. It was 10:15. Gone were the pastures, coffee plants and views of the cultivated valleys. I was closed in, and even though it was raining I barely felt it. Bromeliads and dangling moss covered the trees while trees ferns emerged alongside them. The mountain was so steep that I was facing into the canopy of the trees alongside me.
At last I entered mature forest. At a gap I was able to capture this glimpse of the upper reaches of the Blue Mountain Peak.
At that moment I knew it. I was in the territory of the Jamaican Blackbird. My senses were heightened – every movement, every whisper, came to me with ease. For the next hour I walked slowly, waiting for movement. I saw leaves battered by raindrops, a Jamaican Vireo, an Arrow-headed Warbler, but not what I was looking for. I moved on. Time was getting short, and I began to reconcile myself with the fact that I might not find what I was looking for. I might have to go home empty handed!

After pushing further and further, I had finally hiked as far as I was going to go and stopped for one last go of it. It was a magnificent spot - it was 11:00 and the altimeter read 1667 meters. Blackbird or not, I was in heaven, soaking in the waves of mist that passed through the muscular, stunted trees. The mesmerizing calls of the Rufous-throated Solitaire rang from all around me like the long, single notes of a distant organist.

And then I saw it.

At first it was just a dark shape on an obscured branch. But then it moved. Whatever it was let out a brief cluck, and happened to come closer. I got my binoculars on it and watched it as it sidled deftly along a mossy branch. It could be. The next thing I knew, whatever it was had flown directly to the side of me at eye level. And then another. And another. Suddenly there were three Jamaican Blackbirds working over the trees right next to me. I shivered and nearly passed out with disbelief and joy. The Wild Pine Sergeant in the flesh! The next few minutes passed in heart racing speed as I pulled out my camera and, shielding it from the rain, grabbed some quick video footage. The blackbirds clucked consistently as they foraged, moving heads-up or heads-down as they clambered along the trunks and branches, probing the moss for food. One let out an explosive, harsh song.
 This is the forest where I saw the Jamaican Blackbird. A tree fern hangs over the trail on right bank.

Above is an excerpt of the video I took. Note the unique foraging methods. Rain falls and a Jamaican Vireo calls in the background.  

Eventually I had to cut myself loose and headed back down the mountain, skipping all the way, giddy with my discovery. I had not made it to the summit, or even to the ranger station, but I did not care. I had my own personal goal, my own quest, and I had achieved it in the most exciting of ways. To make things even better, on the way down I was able to film a Crested Quail-Dove as it ambled along the trail in front of me. As my descent came to and end I stopped at an overlook, marked as a spot to take photographs. All I could see was a wall of fog. Oh the mountains, how I loved them.
 Need I say more? False advertising at its best. Below is the video of the Crested Quail-Dove.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Life and Times of Portland Ridge

From February 12th-15th and April 12th-15th we traveled to the dry, coastal forest of Portland Ridge, a peninsula on the south-central coast of Jamaica. To the east of it lies the Portland Bight, which is a bay full of cays and reefs, on the other side of which lies Spanish Town and Kingston. Our purpose there was to do point counts in the dry forest, which entailed visiting fixed points in the woods and recording which species we heard and saw. This gives us a glimpse into the species composition and density in the dry forest as compared to the other habitats we are working in. We also took bug samples and vegetation measurement at these points.

These two photographs were taken by Laura from the top of the fire tower on Portland Ridge. The first is looking towards the Portland Bight with mangroves in the foreground. The white structures out on the water are bauxite processing plants. Bauxite is a key component of aluminum foil, and Jamaica is the world's leading producer of it. The strip mines needed to access the bauxite are a common eye sore of the Jamaican landscape. The second photograph is of the Portland Ridge itself, an extensive tract of tropical dry forest under the protection of a local gun club.

Unfortunately, large sections of this relatively pristine forest were burned a few years ago when a woman clearing land for an illegal ganja plantation let the fire get out of control. The forest’s equilibrium is also tested by feral pigs, cats, and mongoose.

The dry forest, is, in its mature state, an impressive ecosystem. In February, giant red birch-like trees were fruiting, and in the crowns of these trees we saw the local frugivores gorging throughout the day. The lower levels of the forest were filled with an assortment of prickly plants, from cacti to agave to the barbed branches of acacia. There was no relief on the ground either, as the substrate was made of ancient coral beds, whose razor like edges could cut through the best of hiking boots. As we arrived at the actual coastline, an impenetrable wall of mangrove appeared. Mangroves, the natural shock absorber of hurricanes, are also home to many birds. Migrant Northern Waterthrushes and Spotted Sandpipers bobbed their tails down mangrove legs, while breeding Yellow Warblers and Clapper Rails let out their distinctive calls.

While visiting, we stayed at a private hunting lodge owned by the PWD Gun and Sporting Club in Kingston. Their main targets are the local dove and pigeon species, for which they set up artificial drinking holes and feeding stations in the woods to lure them in. We paid for the cost it takes to run the generator. Not a bad deal, when you consider that it is right on the water, has no other houses within five miles of it, and is fitted to host large, spoiled groups of rich businessmen. No businessmen were present on either of our visits however, just the local caretaker, Newton.

Here is a photo of the hunting lodge we stayed at. We snorkeled along the cement dock and submerged rock walls, where hundreds of fish abounded in the crevices. One morning Laura spotted a seahorse, another day a barracuda.

The dock at the lodge was used by some local fisherman, and during the day a variety of swarthy, barefoot men would come in on their rickety boats to drink freshwater and commiserate. When they weren’t tending to the boats or prepping fish the fisherman sat on the porch, playing dominoes and speaking in patwah. From time to time, I could see the snorkels of spear fisherman working the submerged strata offshore.

Here is a crew of one fishing boat sorting through their net, pulling out fish as they went. Taken by Laura.

Their colorful catch. Note the spiny lobster in the first. Taken by Laura.

Here is a typical sight of Newton the Caretaker's porch. Local fisherman join him for a game of dominoes, a glass of freshwater and story-telling. Taken by Laura.

Newton was a very kind, quiet fellow who spent most of his time reading, thankful that we were not as demanding or high-maintenance as the lodge's usual clientele. Some Jamaicans still have a fair share of East Indian blood in them from a time when the English empire brought them over for manual labor in the 1800's. You can see a hint of this lineage in Newton's face.

One morning he called me over with a proud look on his face, and showed me this Green Moray Eel that he had just caught. He had spied it lurking off the side of the dock in the mangroves and had spent the morning fishing for it. He said it was one of the biggest he'd ever seen - it was around three feet long.

Because it got hot so quickly there, the birds were largely silent by eight a.m. Thus, for the few days that we were there, we had large parts of the day free to do what we like. We paid a local fisherman named Bigfoot to take us out for a few hours to one of the nearby cays to relax and look for seabirds. After we landed, Bigfoot quickly disappeared onto the island to harvest coconuts. Laura and I went snorkeling for a while, while Shawn and Ashley chased down lizards, who, due to the lack of predators, had the island covered. Shawn, a reptile buff, taught us that the best way to catch a lizard is to chase it until it tires, since lizards use the same muscles to run as they do to breath. They can’t do both forever!

On our second visit to Portland Ridge, Shawn and I called upon the services of Bigfoot once again, this time to take us out to Half Moon Cay. This cay was supposed to harbor a nesting colony of noddies and terns, a specatcle that both of us were eager to witness. Tragically, the island was bare. We were still too early, no birds had arrived yet. Instead, all there was to see was the shanty of a fisherman and a solitary heron. We walked around the island in ten minutes, amusing ourselves with the single Gray Kingbird and Yellow Warbler that had claimed this isolated territory.

A view from Half Moon Cay.

Captain Bigfoot motors on home following a brief downpour.

The next evening Laura and I took a walk down the entrance road. The road weaved through dry forest and along the coastline before emerging along the border of extensive mangroves. We saw a distant group of fisherman coming ashore to camp for the night, lighting up a fire to keep the insects at bay. They whooped and hollered through all of it, and Laura and I speculated on the source of their amusement as we continued on.

Where the waterline met the roadside lay an endless mat of plastic bottles and trash, intermixed with silt and sticks to create a crunchy, artificial substrate. The gentle slope of Portland Ridge was to our backs, a rough-hewn bow echo jutting southward. Aside from enjoying the walk itself, we were listening for West Indian Whistling-Ducks that might be leaving the mangroves at dusk to feed, though we never found them. While walking, we noticed the migrant warblers moving out from the forest into the spindly acacias as darkness descended, utilizing the last few rays of light for a final meal. Prairie Warblers, Northern Parulas and American Redstarts. Nighthawks and swallows put on an aerial display as they swooped in and out of the swarms of insects in the sky, seining the air as a baleen whale does the ocean. We watched as egrets and herons congregated in a stand mangroves to roost for the night. For as long as we watched they continued to trickle in until there were dozens covering the limbs. Meanwhile, Clapper Rails let out their characteristic rattling calls, unseen as they worked the marshy borders.

That afternoon, we had watched as towering, dark clouds rolled off the center of the island towards us. After a gusty prelude the rain had hit, turning dust to mud and cooling the normally scorching air. Now at dusk, the skittish goats and cattle were emerging from the woodland to drink from the puddles in the road – fresh water was a treasured resource in such a dry place.

As the sun disappeared over the ridge, no-see-um flies appeared out of thin air to attack our bare skin and exposed orifices. In response we ran back towards the house, half laughing half crying at the misery as we slapped our arms and faces, tracing our steps on the vague outline of the road.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Locals

What's a country without its people? The people of Jamaica are a colorful lot, and I've been lucky enough to snag a few candid photos of them along the way. Enjoy! I'll add more photos to this post as they come along.
I saw this fresh looking girl while driving through downtown Montego Bay. I couldn't help but snap a shot through the window.
Here's another nice girl with an even nicer weave.
This mean muggin' fellow was crossing the street in downtown Mo'Bay.
A sight like this was too good to pass up.
Shawn took this photo from out the car window on the outskirts of Kingston. What fashion sense!
This young lad began washing our windshield before we had any say about it. He targeted us because we were a.) first at the red light b.) a car full of whities. It sure did pay off for him!
A man goes fishing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Vacation in Negril

Situated on the westernmost tip of Jamaica, Negril serves up the American fantasy on a fat Jamaican plate. Here, things are nice, with sun-tanned bodies on white beaches, fruity drinks, and hotels on exclusive cliffs. Not to mention, the local flavor, live reggae music, and parties to party at until you drop. Having spent so much time up in the hills, we were all fiending for such a place, and when we were granted a few days off we headed to Negril. What did we do there? Well…

Laura and I chose to stay at the Negril Yoga Centre. You may be wondering whether we are underground yoga pros, and the answer to that is… No, but we saw a lot of yoga pros. The place was across from the beach and offered simple, comfortable accommodations and a communal kitchen, all tucked into a lush garden. And it was cheap. What else do you need?

After settling in the first evening, we headed out onto the beach to check out the scene and wound up at a placed called Bourbon Bar, which was also a large music venue. The open-air bar was right on the ocean, facing the west for a priceless sunset.

The music wasn’t going to start until later on, so we spent our time people watching. People of all sorts were walking along the beachfront – white, black, American, European and Jamaican. Three middle-aged American men drooped over the bar, battling to keep their eyes open. The most energetic of the trio kept spurring the other two into action, convincing them to stay up longer and to re-up for the impending nighttime parties.

Vendors traveled endlessly up and down the beach selling cigarettes, sunglasses, zip-locked fruit and drugs, hustling anyone that gave them the time of day. At every restaurant we ate, the waiters offered to sell us weed under the table, whispering deals of hash and the finest ganja. Along the beachfront, local artisans ushered people into their beachside huts where they would implore you to buy something from them. Each hut had basically the same things as the one next to it - mostly cookie cutter shaped wooden carvings, some of them quite cheesy. Rumor on the street was that some of the carvings were actually mass-produced in China and then sold to naive tourists!!!!! We also learned later that the cigarettes that were sold on the beach weren’t the brand that they claimed to be. They were rip offs! Not that that affected us at all.

After a little while of sitting at the bar we were approached by a young Jamaican man who was working for the venue, selling tickets for a Gyptian concert coming in a few weeks. We told him that we worked up in Betheltown and that we were only down for a few days and asked him if he had any particular recommendations for us. He told us that without a doubt we should rent a scooter, and that he would hook us up with a good deal. Laura and I were instantly intrigued, and so began an hour-long session of scooter haggling, involving our new friend Bryan and his scooter friend Aleem.

Next thing we knew, it was the following morning and our scooter was about to arrive at the Yoga Centre (In true Jamaican fashion it arrived two hours late). Laura signed the papers and just like that we had a scooter at our disposal for the next 24 hours. After preparing a daypack full of snorkel gear and snax, we hopped on and peeled out onto the left side of the road. What was our destination? What else but the famous cliffs of Negril’s south end.

Rounding the first bend, some locals screamed out at us not to wreck, while others tried to convince us of their tour guide capabilities. We ignored them the best we could and Laura revved it, dodging potholes and the light oncoming traffic. The cliff top was lined with resort after resort, all offering the same thing: bar, patio, and water access for swimming and snorkeling. Some establishments had networks of caves that you could walk through to get down to the water, while others advertised cliffs that you could jump off. One such place was Rick’s Café, which was self-proclaimed world famous. We stopped to check it out and found it to be rather ridiculous. It was comprised of an immense, flavorless concrete expanse, replete with verandas and gift shops. The cliffs were overrun with locals that jumped off a 95-foot crow’s nest to get tips. They hassled us endlessly to tip them for their performances; Laura got talked into swimming into some caves with some locals and enjoyed herself until they demanded a $6 tip afterward. We did, however, take a few jumps off the 40-foot cliffs which was exhilarating. Soon after that however, we left in search of a more down to earth locale.

We found our favorite spot at a place called Xtabi, where we sat at a table on the cliff and drank a pina colada as white-tailed tropicbirds chased each other through the sky. After relaxing, we hopped in the deep water and snorkeled around, though the coral was bleached and devoid of anything too spectacular. Regardless, the sheer warmth and clarity of the water made the moment quite surreal.

By this point, Laura had become quite the pro at the scooter. I had had a go of it earlier in the day (which ended up costing us $65 for a new paint job), but soon decided my inexperienced hand might become a liability. Laura was the only driver now. Heading past the lighthouse south out of town we found long uninhabited straightaways cutting through the ruinate woodlands, where Laura revved it and we topped out at 57 KPH.

That evening we headed back to the beachfront for a late dinner at a hut selling jerk chicken. The cook was a kind man who worked there with his wife, and since we were his only customers he lit up a spliff and sat down with us. He told us all about the crazy spring breakers and how rude and loud they were, doing every drug under the moon, from coke and heroin to acid and pills. He emphasized with us over and over that he strictly smoked the ganja and seemed disgusted by the tourists for their heathen ways. I didn’t argue with him, though he did think their rampant sex and skinny-dipping was shameful. :-/ Too tired from our busy day, we missed out on the live music again and fell asleep on the early side of things.

Our final morning, we decided to enjoy the beach life one more time, crossing the road and claiming two shaded beach chairs. We purloined a crossword, read our books, and took a quick dip in the calm water. Then we battled it out in a final ping pong match, playing the onshore breeze as we spun winners back and forth.