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.


  1. Holy frijole! Magnifico! This was so fun to read, especially: "I headed down the mountain...skipping all the way, giddy with my discovery." And "I shivered and nearly passed out with disbelief and joy." So fun to read about your pursuit and discovery, and the accompanying sensations, hopes, and elation. Enjoyed very much too the details about the mountain setting and the birds. Nice to learn that Jamaica has such pristine habitat remaining. Loved the photos and videos! Well done!

  2. I've had that moment too. Alone, against the clock, awash in nature, then the bird! For me, white-crowned forktail in Bali. Thanks for sharing. Felt I was with you. What a treat!