We made a recent excursion to Jamaica in search of the endemic Jamaican Owl. Our time was brief so we focused our efforts on the eastern side of the island. Having read that the Hotel Mockingbird on the north-east side of the island had resident Jamaican Owls made this our first destination. The hotel is a wonderful place to stay and we did hear the Jamaican Owl although never actually saw any while we were there. The big trees that are located adjacent to the hotel may indeed have Jamaican Owls roosting in them but the “wise old owls” are certainly becoming aware of the folks who come to see them and were not out on open branches showing off to the tourists.
To find and take pictures of Jamaican Owl we were going to have to head into the forests and get away from dense population. I was not going to be satisfied with hearing this owl from a quarter mile away and then ticking the species off a check list. I wanted to clearly see this owl. Jamaican Owl is strictly nocturnal and normally roosts in thick tangles or hidden in well shaded areas so the prospect of finding one on an exposed daytime perch was not promising. This was going to require night searching.
If your interest is in beautiful sunny beaches, gorgeous clear water, and spectacular resorts, this is a great place to be (my next adventure into Jamaica has to include diving). The overall population density of Jamaica is about the same as that of New Jersey which is the highest in the US. Quiet and remote areas for owling are a bit more challenging to find. The few evenings we had were spent along Reach Road. This road goes into the interior mountains about a half hour east of Port Antonio and comes out back along the coast just south of Manchioneal. It is one of the places where there are still undeveloped old forests. Some of the locals referred to this area as being this the “real Jamaica of the past”. For nature lovers, there are lush tropical forests along a mid-elevation mountain road with many of the 30 endemic species of birds and at night the Jamaican Owl is prevalent.
Maybe the best known of the endemic Jamaican bird species is the Jamaican Tody and this was one of the first birds we found along Reach Road coming in from the Manchioneal side. There are 28 species of endemic birds (2 more that may now be extinct). Although my primary purpose was to find the Jamaican Owl at night, a daylight survey of where you are heading in the darkness is essential. This worked out perfectly for seeing the daytime birds. Who needs to sleep in such a great place anyway! Jamaica also has 31 species of reptiles (including crocodiles along the southern coast), 35 species of mammals (most of which are marine, bats, or rodents) and 25 species of frogs and toads. None of the snakes are poisonous although with the introduction of mongoose many of the endemic snakes may have been destroyed. Our limited exploration produced few frogs, reptiles or mammals other than bats (excluding the abundance of dogs and cats).
Our first night along Reach Road did indeed produce success in finding Jamaican Owl. After some exposure to the Jamaican people my first comment on finding the owl was “Yah mon!” I should note that although we were often along this little road very late at night there was usually very little traffic at any hour. When the first car that came by us stopped to make sure we were OK, it was certainly a relief and made us feel much safer about being out at night in a remote and unfamiliar place far away from home. Our experiences in Jamaica were of it being reasonably safe and having very friendly people.
Another owl of the night that we found I did not expect. I knew there were Barn Owls in Jamaica but there are plenty of them here in California too. It was just an afterthought that I decided to look for them in the lowlands on our last night in Jamaica. “Yah mon!” What a beautiful owl this is. He is very vivid white and much different in appearance than our North American Barn Owls. I have to think, because of its different vocalization and appearance, that when more research is done on this owl it will eventually be split off into a new species.
Jamaica is certainly on my list of places for a future trip. The eastern area that we explored was extremely beautiful, had superb birdlife, and the coastline was exceptional. Driving on the opposite side of the poorly maintained roads certainly added a challenging twist to our journey. With a growing and already economically depressed population I have to wonder how their disappearing natural areas will fare in the future. For now though, Jamaica is an impressive place with spectacular tropical beauty and distinctive bird life that is well worth a visit.