The Vervain Hummingbird, Jamaican Endemism, and the Wickedest City on Earth

Vervain Hummingbird, Jamaica, Steve Shunk

Vervain Hummingbird feeding at aloe blossoms at Jamaica’s Grand Port Royal Hotel. Kingston, Jamaica; Steve Shunk.

I arrived in Kingston a day early, as planned, to sleep off my red-eye flight and to mentally prepare for a week of immersion in Jamaica’s endemic flora and fauna. I treasure these casual moments on any trip, when I can just sit and take in the surroundings of a foreign land—or island, as the case was here. Walking into the Grand Port Royal Hotel, I was greeted warmly by the reception staff, who seemed to remember me from my previous visit of just over one year earlier. The familiar welcome and bright Jamaican smiles were much appreciated.

Too early to officially check in, I headed for the al fresco bar and restaurant, with its just-above-water-level view of the tiny Port Royal harbor. The only two boats that one might call “yachts” apparently belong to a former member of the Jamaican Parliament. Most of the others are small fishing boats and general pleasure craft. Kingston and Port Royal do not hold the cachet of Jamaica’s northern coast—in and around Montego Bay—where the busy tourism port sees massive cruise ships and elite yachts that cost many times the value of most people’s homes. Kingston mainly serves as the political capital and industrial port of the island, with Port Royal a mere twinkle of its former grandeur.

Once known as the “Wickedest City on Earth,” Port Royal boasts an amazing history, from its subsistence fishing use by the Taino Indians to its short-lived reign as the wealthiest port in the Caribbean. The Spanish claimed Jamaica and enslaved the Taino in the early 1500s, and the British took it from the Spanish in 1655. Under British rule, Port Royal stood as the proud capital of sanctioned piracy through the late 17th century. Captain Morgan (the rum guy) is just one of the famous pirates who set up shop here. The hustle and bustle of Port Royal met an abrupt and violent end in 1692, when a massive earthquake and tsunami sunk most of the pirate city in a matter of minutes. Today, the underwater streets and buildings—many of which remain intact—comprise the “Underwater City of Port Royal” UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO itself calls the sunken city “unique among global cultural heritage sites.”

Yellow Warbler Jamaica. Steve Shunk.

Male Yellow Warbler at the Grand Port Royal Hotel, Kingston Jamaica. Steve Shunk.

As I walked down the path toward the bar, I heard what I figured was a Bananaquit squeaking from somewhere on the grounds, as well as the familiar “chip” of a Yellow Warbler. Anytime I’m in Bananaquit-land, I lazily attribute any strange squeak to this ubiquitous and chatty little songbird. (Incidentally, the Jamaican Bananaquit represents the nominate subspecies, or the first that was used to describe the species for science.) In the distance, Brown Pelicans splash-dove into the breeze-rippled waters of Kingston Harbor, while Laughing Gulls stood on the pilings like silly palace guards in a Monty Python movie. Despite my exhaustion, I had the bartender, Omar, fix me his special purple elixir as I sat in the shade and enjoyed the quiet (the gulls were not laughing).

No sooner did I take my first sip, when a familiar little pixie buzzed in to feed on the blooming aloe stalks that lined the edge of the deck. Immediately, it clicked: the actual squeaker I heard earlier was not, in fact, a Bananaquit, but a male Vervain Hummingbird proclaiming his territorial rights to the aloe and any other flowering plants in the immediate vicinity. I remembered the Vervain well, from my first visit to Jamaica in 2014. We stood a few feet below another virile male at Dr. Ann Sutton’s property, Marshall’s Pen near Mandeville, as he shouted his forceful proclamation. The little guy in front of me now fed energetically among several stalks of tubular aloe blossoms, shoving his tiny dark bill so deep into the calyxes of each flower that his tiny green forehead pushed against the curved lips of the flowers.

Watching a feeding Vervain Hummingbird—ten feet away—is an especially warm welcome to this Caribbean island with the most endemic birds (29 extant species, 2 probably extinct). Depending on whom you ask, the Vervain Hummingbird holds the title of the world’s second-smallest bird, behind the Cuban endemic Bee Hummingbird. This species is what we call a Caribbean “regional” endemic, occurring primarily on Jamaica and Hispaniola, with a few scattered populations on tiny islands nearby.

Bananaquit. Starlight Chalet, Jamaica; Steve Shunk.

Jamaica’s endemic subspecies of the widespread Bananaquit. Starlight Chalet, Jamaica’s Blue Mountains; Steve Shunk.

Ecologists know Jamaica as one of the most biodiverse islands in the world. Besides its impressive bird numbers, Jamaica hosts over 500 species of endemic land snails and more than 800 endemic vascular plants. It’s a naturalist’s playground here—the only major Caribbean island that was never connected to any continental land mass—where thousands of organisms evolved in relative isolation, and where there are still arthropods, “lower” plants, and other bio-gems that have yet to be scientifically described and catalogued.

It’s hard to miss the Vervain Hummingbird when he is zipping by your table for his next nectar visit, and Jamaica’s other specialty birds are equally easy to observe by even the uninitiated nature-lover. Every traveling birder needs to visit this welcoming island and to go beyond the beaches, into the Blue and John Crow Mountains or the Cockpit Country, where a very relaxed experience with island endemism awaits. I can’t wait for my next visit.

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