Last week, we hiked up to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point in Jamaica. To reach the summit, you have to go through Portland Gap, a saddle between Mossman’s and Blue Mountain Peaks and a good point for camping out if you want to do the hike in the morning. Starting with all our camping gear on our backs at the trailhead around 4,185ft, we took a brisk hour’s hike to Portland Gap, gaining 1,356ft of elevation in the process. We set up our tents at Portland Gap, an area with the most Rufous-throated Solitaires we’ve seen so far – they’re very shy birds and are most often only heard, their haunting whistles echoing eerily over valleys and through the forest.
The Gap also ended up being a great spot to see White-collared Swifts making their way south over the Blue Mountains from Swift Valley (site of the Swift River, possibly named for its avian denizens rather than its speedy waters). On one morning alone we counted 471 individuals flying over in the course of an hour and a half, and we’re hoping to encourage further research of this population among prospective ornithology students in Jamaica.
Our morning ascent to Blue Mountain Peak (7,385ft by our GPS’s calculations of the accessible summit) yielded our first and final look at the uncommon, endangered, and endemic Jamaican Blackbird, which has an amusingly wheezy or squeal-like call and forages in the bromeliads of the island’s rainforests. We were lucky enough to get more than a mere glimpse at this cool bird since two of them flew quite close to us while on the trail.
Once we reached the summit, John and I foraged for wild strawberries in the grass while Justin dully but dutifully scanned the skies for aerial insectivores (it’s not easy being the boss). Our good bird fortune didn’t extend to the cloudiness of the day, however, and we were never afforded the potentially majestic view of the island from Blue Mountain Peak that some people can get. To avoid being closed in by clouds, some people actually start hiking at around 4am (we heard them pass by our tents) for a sunrise at the peak, but since we wanted to get a look at the aerial insectivores crossing over Portland Gap we chose against this option.