Dispatch from Jamaica: A Day at Goblin Hill Villas

Associate Editor Steve Shunk spent a magnificent week at the BirdsCaribbean conference in July 2015. In this post, he reports on the birds and comforts of his stay. 

View of San San Bay from Goblin Hill Villas; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

What sound did your alarm clock make this morning? Mine was a Gray Kingbird. Multiple Gray Kingbirds, actually. And I couldn’t exactly reach over and hit the snooze button, since Gray Kingbirds were actually chattering outside my window. A nice welcome on my first day in Jamaica. I am here attending the 20th International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean, which is being held in New Kingston, Jamaica, from 25-29 July 2015.

An easy two-hour shuttle ride from Kingston brought me to Goblin Hill Villas last night, in the Portland Parish, at the eastern end of the island. I’m close enough to Port Antonio to get a quick cab ride for supplies, and my villa looks out over the lovely San San Bay and Alligator Head (a fitting name for this small rocky promontory).

A lobster fisherman passes Alligator Head at the southern entrance to San San Bay; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

Behind me—just a 15-minute walk down the hill—is the 170-foot-deep Blue Lagoon, made famous in the 1980 film of the same name, which starred a 14-year-old Brooke Shields and the studly Christopher Atkins, in his “acting” debut. This corner of Jamaica has quite a star-studded past, with the Errol Flynn Marina just down the road, past Frenchman’s Cove, where Queen Elizabeth once vacationed. All fun local history, but I’m not here for the monarchs and movie stars.

I spent most of my first day watching hummingbirds from the veranda at Goblin Hill. Back at home I enjoy watching the Anna’s and Rufous hummers fight over the feeders. But here I get to watch two magnificent endemics: Jamaican Mango and the Black-billed Streamertail. We’re not in Kansas anymore!

Jamaica  Steve Shunk

Black-billed Streamertail, missing his tail streamers © Steve Shunk

Jamaican Mango

The bronzy sheen of the Jamaican Mango © Steve Shunk

At least 5 streamertail males zing back and forth, usually being chased by one of the resident mangoes, a much beefier bird than the elegant streamertail. I try to get photos of the hummers, but I keep getting distracted by other Jamaican endemics. White-chinned Thrush fledglings squawk from the shrubs, as if they are still begging from their now all but absent parents; Jamaican Woodpeckers call and drum from the trees around the deck; and the chunky little Orangequit tweets overhead.

Jamaica boasts 31 endemic bird species, the most of any island in the Caribbean. And those are just the island endemics, an important distinction here in the Caribbean, where thousands of islands dot this big turquoise sea. Beyond the single-island or single-nation endemics are the regional endemics, some of which are widespread in the Caribbean, and some of which only occur on select islands. On this morning at Goblin Hill, the regionally endemic Greater Antillean Grackle and Loggerhead Kingbird work themselves onto my trip list.

Loggerhead Kingbird hunting from the wire along the quiet entrance road to Goblin Hill © Steve Shunk

Loggerhead Kingbird hunting from the wire along the quiet entrance road to Goblin Hill © Steve Shunk

After a lovely afternoon nap in my breeze-flushed villa, the sea calls to me. I pass through the Goblin Hill beach-gate to the “locals trail” just a few meters up from a small beach, and away from the busier stretch of white sand at the head of San San Bay. I basically have the bay to myself—one local family is swimming just off the beach; one kayaker paddles along the opposite shore; and the occasional water taxi putters through the channel between the “mainland” and the tiny Princess Nina Island (known to locals as “Monkey Island,” though the actual Monkey Island is closer to Port Antonio).

Monkey Island, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

Princess Nina Island, San San Bay, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

Swimming out past the near-shore beds of turtle grass, I approach the island, where the sea bottom gets rockier and corals have taken hold. In about 15 feet of water, I float over several Yellow Sting-rays and a Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber (yes, that’s its real name) at the edge of the turtle grass.

Yellow Sting Ray in San San Bay; Portland, Jamaica © Steve Shunk

An orange Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber sifts through the sand (very slowly) in San San Bay © Steve Shunk

An orange Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber sifts through the sand (very slowly) in San San Bay © Steve Shunk


I’m not a huge fan of the tropical heat, and I could spend many hours in the water. My throat gets dry when I’m constantly breathing through a snorkel, however, so I’m looking for the best way to have fresh water with me while I’m snorkeling. Any ideas? The shallower parts of San San Bay are even a little too warm for my liking, but the water gets cooler where it mixes with the swell pushing over the bay’s outer reef. As always, time flies when I’m in the water. Today, the sunset snuck up on me.

The end of a great first day in Jamaica.

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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