Birding at River Breeze

I’ve always enjoyed photographing birds, although I don’t consider myself a “bird photographer”. This is because I lack both the patience and specialized equipment required to excel in this type of photography. However, for over 10 years I have owned a small cottage in the community buffer zone of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park (BJCMNP) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The BJCMNP was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a mixed property in 2015 for its natural and cultural heritage. One of the reasons for this is the large variety of birds that can be found in these mountains.

A Red-Billed Streamer-tail Hummingbird, nestled in a Blue Mahoe Flower. February 2019.

River Breeze Cottage is located in the community of Cascade at an altitude of 700 metres above sea level and is located in the vicinity of Hardwar Gap which is a popular bird-watching site. This results in a large variety of both endemic species and migrant species on the property, which is less than an acre in size. On a wet and rainy Monday, Dr. Suzanne Davis of the Institute of Jamaica was able to identify over 24 species in less than three hours.

Jamaican Woodpecker. February 2019.
Vervain Hummingbird. August 2019. 

These included the ubiquitious Red-Billed Streamer-tailed hummingbird, an endemic species that is the national bird of Jamaica. Also present is Jamaica’s smallest hummingbird, the Vervain Hummingbird. Other endemics include the Jamaican Tody, the Jamaican Woodpecker, the Jamaican Euphoria, the Jamaican Spindalis and the White-Chinned Thrush. In the distance I saw a Chestnut-Bellied Cuckoo, and Suzanne was able to identify  the Yellow-Shouldered Grassquit  by its birdsong. These birds are found only in Jamaica, and I am blessed to be able to view them in my small patch of paradise. 

Black-Throated Blue Warbler. December 2009

Smooth-Billed Ani. December 2016

Apart from the endemics, Jamaica receives migrant species during both the winter and summer months.  Among the former is the Black-Throated Blue Warbler, while the Black-Whiskered Vireo is a summer visitor. Suzanne was able to identify the latter from its characteristic bird-call, which sounds like “John-Chew-It” (hence its local name). Of course, I was totally unable to distinguish such sounds. Other birds that can be found in the garden include the Smooth-Billed Ani, the Loggerhead Kingbird, Bananaquits, the Black-Faced Grassquit, the White-Crowned Pigeon and the Rufous-Throated Solitaire. 

So, these are just a few of the birds that can be found at River Breeze Cottage. Needless to say, I believe that I will be doing more bird watching and bird photography. I’ve already bought a pair of binoculars and I might even invest in some new camera lenses. I’m not sure about acquiring the patience though…

Bananaquit. February 2019.

Sad Flycatcher. December  2009



River Breeze Cottage

Treasures of Kitson Town: Part I

In commemoration of Emancipation Day in Jamaica on August 1, over the next few days I will be sharing the wealth of history associated with the Free Village of Kitson Town and its environs in the parish of St. Catherine.

I didn’t know much about Kitson Town before April 2019. Which is a shame, considering how culturally rich it is. Fortunately, that month I carried a handful of intrepid photography students to explore Mountain River Cave. This was when I met members of the Kitson Town Community Development Committee (CDC), who introduced me to their village’s rich cultural heritage. I, in turn, am sharing this knowledge with you.

En route to Mountain River Cave.

Free villages were communities established in Jamaica after Emancipation in 1838 for newly freed slaves, normally by abolitionist missionaries. They were located away from sugar plantations in order to prevent the plantations owners from exerting power over their former slaves by determining their living conditions. Kitson Town was established on July 3, 1841 on 195 acres of land that was purchased by the Baptist Missionary James Phillipo. It was named after George Kitson in an area formerly known as Red Hills, in the former parish of St. John.

Why am I focusing on Kitson Town? Apart from being a free village, Kitson Town is unique in that in a very small area, visitors are able to interact with in situ remnants of Jamaica’s history. These include pictographs and petroglyphs from pre-Columbian Taino Amerindians, legacies of slavery, buildings and artefacts from the colonial era, and built heritage from Jamaica’s post-emancipation and pre-independence era. The Kitson Town CDC is focused on using this rich cultural heritage to lay a foundation for its sustainable development.  

Trodding with Tainos

As mentioned previously, my initial reason for visiting the environs of Kitson Town was to carry students to Mountain River Cave, which is designated a national monument by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JHNT).

Hiking to Mountain River Cave

Tainos were Jamaica’s first inhabitants, and were Amerindians that arrived from South America approximately 2500 years ago. They were a peaceable people who established villages throughout the island, cultivating crops such as cassava, maize and tobacco. Evidence of their activities are found across Jamaica, and one of the few places to view their pictographs and petroglyphs is at Mountain River Cave, located at Cudjoe Hill, which is approximately 30 minutes from Kitson Town. This is where we met our guide, Monica Wright.

From here we walked – or “trodded” as our Rastafarian brethren like to say. Trodding down some of the steepest steps I have ever walked, and then across the Mountain River. Then the hike really started – through limestone forests and over honeycomb rocks. Fortunately I was with a fun-loving set of students, a knowledgeable guide, her grandchildren and their dog, so the hour-long hike passed quickly. We were then able lay our eyes on artwork which experts have dated to between 500 to 1300 years old.

Taino Pictographs at Mountain River Cave, St. Catherine, Jamaica.

Early Europeans

In 1494, Spaniards led by Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica. This represented the first recorded contact between Jamaicans and Europeans, and was an encounter that did not end well for the Tainos. I was taught in school that the Tainos were totally exterminated by the Spanish. However, this has recently been disputed, with one argument being that Tainos mixed with the Spaniard’s African slaves, resulting in Taino DNA being extant in some present-day Jamaicans.

A Spanish Jar in St. John’s Church.

The Spanish presence in Jamaica lasted until 1655 when British forces under the command of Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables successfully captured the island from the Spanish. According to the Jamaica Information Service, the Spanish fled to Cuba and released their slaves. These slaves escaped into the mountainous interior and became the first Maroons, who were slaves that escaped from their colonial masters. The word originates from the Spanish word Cimarron, meaning wild. (More on the Maroons in Part II).

St. John’s Anglican Church – Guanaboa Vale, is one of Jamaica’s oldest churches.

At St. John’s Anglican Church at Guanaboa Vale we discovered signs of this early European contact, including a whitewashed Spanish Jar of indeterminate age. What I found fascinating were the 17th and early 18th century graves of early British settlers, located on the floor of the church. These include the grave of Richard Guy who was buried at the age of 63 in 1681. The nearby community of Guy’s Hill is named after him. Other graves found here included that of: the seven children of Charles and Sarah Price, who passed on in the early 18th century, aged between 3 weeks to 14 years old, and John Charnoch, who died in 1730, and whose tomb is graced with heraldry.

Heraldry adorning the tomb of John Charnoch
Tomb containing the 7 children of Charles and Sarah Price
The grave of Richard Guy, after whom the community of Guy’s Hill is named.

There is so much cultural wealth in Kitson Town, that one post will not suffice. Coming in Part II….haunted ponds, subterranean tunnels and the ubiquity of shackles.

Sargassum & Solids

Last week I witnessed firsthand what is considered by many as the current bane of Caribbean beaches – sargassum seaweed fighting for space with copious quantities of plastic. We were on our way to Morant Point lighthouse, Jamaica’s easternmost point, when we stopped at Holland Bay Beach. The state of it stopped us in our tracks.

Plastics litter Holland Bay Beach near Morant Point, Jamaica’s easternmost point. May 22, 2019. Sargassum seaweed is visible at the water’s edge and Morant Point Lighthouse is visible in the distance.

The most obvious and disturbing element was the expanse of plastic waste that blanketed the beach from the road to the sea. The only thing that prevented the plastic from entering the water was the barrier of brown algae, known as Sargassum. Although both are an assault on the senses, the fact that one is natural and the other is man-made reflects the different potential solutions to these issues.

Plastic Pollution

Plastic from a foreign land, at Holland Bay Beach.
Plastic among the beach flora at Holland Bay, Jamaica

According to the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) “pollution from solid waste, and in particular from plastics, has emerged as one of the greatest global challenges”. The CEP adds that “everyday 8,000,000 new solid waste items that become marine litter in our oceans and seas everyday”.

This was evident at Holland Bay, where – at this easternmost point of Jamaica – it was clear that not all of the plastic on the beach originated in Jamaica. This is line with the CEP, who state that in major Caribbean cities “the amount of solid waste collected can be as low as 50% of the total amount generated”. The remainder ends up not just staying in the territory of origin, but it is also carried by the sea to other countries, such as Holland Bay swimming beach in eastern Jamaica.

So what can we do about it? The fact is, we know what to do. Just to remind readers, according to the Caribbean Environment Programme, actions include, ” improve the collection, transport and disposal of solid waste; restrict the importation and use of single-use plastics; promote recycling and re-use; identify more environmentally friendly alternatives to packaging material such as styrofoam, and develop new job opportunities relating to solid waste and plastics management”. However, even if all of actions immediately occurred, the fact is that plastic has a lifespan of 400 years. Yes, life is a beach – especially for plastic.

Big Brown Bucks

Over the past few years, Sargassum has been viewed as an unsightly nuisance, especially if you were looking forward to a pleasurable swim in the crystal clear water of the Caribbean sea. According to Daphne Ewing-Chow, “since 2011, a sargassum seaweed crisis has devastated the Caribbean: tainting beaches, killing marine life and limiting the livelihoods of fisher folk due to an increase in fuel and maintenance costs, impeded efficiency and reduced catch”.

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