Dispatch from Jamaica, Part II: The Doctor Bird, the Tody, and the Blue Lagoon

<em>I headed for Jamaica this summer to speak at the 20th International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean, the leading conservation group in the Caribbean region. The meeting was phenomenal, with representatives from over 30 islands networking and sharing their science, conservation, and education projects. <a href=”http://www.birdscaribbean.org/tag/birdscarib2015/” target=”_blank”>#BirdsCarib2015</a></em>

<a title=”Jamaica Kingston Red-billed Streamertail Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/BBSTknutsford_P1390892.jpg”><img class=”wp-image-6659 size-large” src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/BBSTknutsford_P1390892-700×509.jpg” alt=”Red-billed Streamertail at BirdsCaribbean meeting, Jamaica” width=”700″ height=”509″ /></a> This Red-billed Streamertail (sans tail streamers) kept us entertained at the meeting © Steve Shunk

When we were’t basking in the air conditioning at the Knutsford Court Hotel in New Kingston, we were watching the <strong>Red-billed Streamertail</strong> hummingbirds chasing each other through the grounds. This handsome hummer is the Jamaican national bird, known to locals as the “Doctor Bird.” The prevailing theory on the name refers to the resemblance of its long black tail streamers and black crest to the top hat and black tails of historic doctors’ garb. In addition to the Streamertails, we were regularly entertained by the resident <strong>White-crowned Pigeons</strong>, <strong>Greater Antillean Grackles</strong>, and the squeaky little <strong>Bananaquits</strong>.  I was also excited to see and hear my “life” <strong>Antillean Nighthawks</strong>, which came out each day around sunset, zig-zagging and calling “gimme-me-bit” (the onomatopoeic Jamaican name for the bird) over the courtyard as they hawked for aerial insects.

After the 5-day meeting had run its course, it was time to head back to Portland, on the eastern coast.

<a title=”Jamaica Goblin Hill Veranda Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/GoblinHillVirandaEvening_P1400437.jpg”><img class=”wp-image-6648 size-large” src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/GoblinHillVirandaEvening_P1400437-700×560.jpg” alt=”Goblin Hill Villas; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> Evening light on the veranda at Goblin Hill Villas; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

I returned to Goblin Hill Villas on a very hot afternoon, which demanded an immediate swim in San San Bay. After the very short walk down the hill, I could barely get my snorkeling gear prepped before a pair of <strong>Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoos</strong> skipped through the inside of the canopy.

<a title=”Jamaica San San Bay Goblin Hill Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/GoblinHillNTN_DSCN0295.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6660″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/GoblinHillNTN_DSCN0295-700×560.jpg” alt=”Looking back at the Goblin Hill Villas from San San Bay © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> Looking back at the Goblin Hill Villas from San San Bay © Steve Shunk

An hour of late afternoon snorkeling took me back out toward the tiny Princess Nina Island. As I approached the island, I passed over several large rocks on the sandy bottom, like a benthic connect-the-dots game leading to Nina’s rocky shore. Resting on one of the rocks was a large <strong>Spotted Scorpionfish</strong>. At first, I could only see the pectoral fin, and it just looked like some kind of bivalve. I dove for a closer look and was startled at first, and then fascinated, by the size and shape of this venomous fish’s robust figure camouflaged against the rock.

<a title=”Jamaica San San Bay Spotted Scorpionfish Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/SpottedScorpionSanSan_DSCN0348.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6661″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/SpottedScorpionSanSan_DSCN0348-700×560.jpg” alt=”The impressive and well-camouflaged Spotted Scorpionfish; San San Bay, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> The impressive and well-camouflaged Spotted Scorpionfish; San San Bay, Jamaica © Steve Shunk<a title=”YellowFeatherWormSanSan_DSCN0399″ href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/YellowFeatherWormSanSan_DSCN0399.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6672″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/YellowFeatherWormSanSan_DSCN0399-700×560.jpg” alt=”Yellow Feather-duster Worms in San San Bay; note that the leftmost individual is retracted into its gravelly tube. Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> Yellow Feather-duster Worms in San San Bay; note that the leftmost individual is retracted into its gravelly tube. Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

Just past the scorpionfish, I came across some beautiful <strong>Yellow Feather-duster Worms</strong> actively filtering their meal from the pulsing underwater swell. The sun soon began sinking toward the horizon, so I headed back toward shore, when I discovered something most unusual: a detached <strong>Sun Anemone</strong> waving back and forth along the bottom, desperately clinging to a single blade of turtle grass as it searched—in its blind sea-anemone sort of way—for another rocky stronghold.

<a title=”Jamaica San San Bay Sun Anemone Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/USDanemoneSanSan_DSCN0389.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6662″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/USDanemoneSanSan_DSCN0389-700×560.jpg” alt=”The rarely seen underside of a Sun Anemone beneath San San Bay; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> The rarely seen underside of a Sun Anemone beneath San San Bay; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

On my last evening, I headed for the Goblin Hill “tree bar”—a spirally tiered hang-out that twisted around an enormous fig tree. I enjoyed a couple of the house specialty drink—a fresh-fruit smoothie, spiked with the local Wray &amp; Nephew overproof white rum. You never need to order a double when the overproof is involved. Needless to say, I slept well.

Popping out of bed at 7, before the sun hit the grounds, I stumbled to the porch to soak up the morning view. After a few deep breaths of the humid tropical air, I turned to go back inside, and just below me was a juvenile <strong>Jamaican Tody,</strong> on the clothesline under the porch of the neighboring villa. This tiny little icon of the Greater Antilles—an endemic family, and each large island with its own endemic species, two on Hispaniola—rested sleepy-eyed on the line before starting its morning preening session.

<a title=”Jamaica Goblin Hill Jamaican Tody Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/JATO_SleepyTodyGoblinHill_P1390986.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6663″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/JATO_SleepyTodyGoblinHill_P1390986-700×560.jpg” alt=”A sleepy juvenile Jamaican Tody at Goblin Hill Villas; Portland Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> A sleepy juvenile Jamaican Tody at Goblin Hill Villas; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

My housekeeper, Wendy, arrived promptly at 8 a.m., as I had requested the day before. As per Goblin Hill custom, I had pre-ordered my breakfast and lunch. She filled the kitchen the prior afternoon with local fruit and fixins for a truly authentic Jamaican breakfast: ackee and salt-fish, hot Johnny cakes, and fresh fruit. Wendy also prepared my lunch in advance: an awesome callaloo quiche, with a homemade crust (callaloo is a Jamaican staple made from the leaves of green amaranth). After a filling breakfast and some casual hummingbird photography at the veranda, I watched a <strong>Jamaican Woodpecker</strong> excavate a cavity along the entrance road. Eventually pulling myself away, it was time for one more dip, this time at the famous Blue Lagoon.

<a title=”Jamaica Goblin Hill Jamaican Mango Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/JAMArosycheek_P1390725.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6665″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/JAMArosycheek_P1390725-700×560.jpg” alt=”A glint of magenta from the cheek of the Jamaican Mango, Goblin Hill; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> A glint of magenta from the cheek of the Jamaican Mango, Goblin Hill; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk<a title=”Jamaica Goblin Hill Jamaican Woodpecker Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/JAWOgoblinhill_P1400265.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6667″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/JAWOgoblinhill_P1400265-700×560.jpg” alt=”A male Jamaican Woodpecker pauses momentarily while excavating a cavity near Goblin Hill; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> A male Jamaican Woodpecker pauses momentarily while excavating a cavity near Goblin Hill; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

The 170-foot-deep Blue Lagoon claims its fame from the 1980 film of the same name, which starred Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. Most of the movie was actually shot elsewhere, but the fame remained with the Jamaican “Blue Hole” nonetheless. About 100 feet below the surface, cold fresh-water springs pour into the water column, mixing with the warm saltwater and causing this bizarre optical distortion that made identifying sea creatures all but impossible. Weaving my way through the swirling patches of wavy water, I came upon one of the coolest creatures I have ever seen—on land or in the sea: a giant <strong>Caribbean Whiptail Stingray</strong>, feeding on the sandy bottom just outside the lagoon.

<a title=”Jamaica Blue Lagoon Caribbean Whiptail Stingray Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/GiantStingrayBlueHole_DSCN0460.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6666″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/GiantStingrayBlueHole_DSCN0460-700×560.jpg” alt=”A giant Caribbean Whiptail Stingray feeds by sifting through the sand for small fish and invertebrates; Blue Lagoon, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> A giant Caribbean Whiptail Stingray feeds by sifting through the sand for small fish and invertebrates; Blue Lagoon, Jamaica © Steve Shunk<a title=”Jamaica Blue Lagoon Steve Shunk” href=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/BlueHoleWall_DSCN0424.jpg”><img class=”size-large wp-image-6668″ src=”http://naturetravelnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/BlueHoleWall_DSCN0424-700×560.jpg” alt=”Looking down the nearly vertical wall of the Blue Lagoon, aka the &quot;Blue Hole;&quot; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk” width=”700″ height=”560″ /></a> Looking down the nearly vertical wall of the Blue Lagoon, aka the “Blue Hole;” Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

I could have watched that stingray for hours, but once again, time got a hold of me. The Earth kept spinning away from the sun, and this Jamaican sojourn came to an end.

I like Jamaica.

The birds, the sea-life, the jerk-chicken, and the tasty rum punch.

I also love the hospitality, and I’m going back for more in February 2016.

Jamaica should be on <em>your</em> calendar. Go birding in the Blue Mountains and snorkeling in the Blue Lagoon. Melt into the casual Jamaican lifestyle, and like me, you will want to return.

Steve Shunk

Steve Shunk is a contributing editor for Nature Travel Network. Steve started traveling early, with family Amtrak rides, summer beach houses, and extended car-camping. After a suburban childhood in four different states, Steve forged his independence Read More

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