Hunting the Mountain Witch
Besides my 3rd grade teacher, I had never encountered a witch before. That is until a recent Nikon’s BATV film trip to Jamaica revealed a unique avian femme fatale, the Crested Quail-dove – also known colloquially as the mountain witch. Widely regarded as the toughest of the 28 Jamaican endemic birds to find, this charismatic dove is somewhat of an enigma. Although it is classified as near-threatened by the IUCN on account of its low numbers and decreasing habitat, it is not so much its scarcity or limited distribution that makes it arguably the most missed endemic by visiting birders. In fact the bird can be fairly common in localized, suitable habitat. Rather, it is the bird’s shy and retiring nature, its unlikeliness to respond to playback and its crepuscular habits that have frustrated the living daylights out of many an avitourist. And so, to get good views requires oodles of patience, planning and skill. Lacking an abundance of these qualities, I was forced to rely on local knowledge and well…luck.
But scarcity and elusiveness are only part of the Crested Quail-dove’s allure. For, unlike most witches and my 3rd grade teacher, this is a stunningly beautiful creature. Adorned with the most beautiful purple wing feathers, russet wing-tips and a silvery crest topped off with cherry-red eyes, this bird is a real looker. In fact if I had my way, I would change the local name to “mountain siren” rather than “mountain witch”. Such is its captivating beauty.
A Crested Quail-dove by Biswarup Satpati
Crested Quail-doves are found in limited habitat in the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains of eastern Jamaica. They can also be found in the Cockpit Country of north-western Jamaica. But undoubtably the best location to see them is a legendary site in the eastern part of the island called Ecclesdown Road. This road winds languidly through pristine birding habitat in the foothills of the John Crow Mountains and is easily accessible by vehicle. Besides Crested Quail-doves, endemic birds that have been regularly spotted here include Jamaican Spindalis, Jamaican Euphonia, Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Tody, Jamaican Pewee, Black-billed Streamertail, Jamaican Elaenia, White-chinned Thrush, Orangequit, Jamaican Blackbird, both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Parrots and Jamaican Crow, along with other non-endemic species.
A Jamaican Tody on Ecclesdown Road
Ecclesdown Road is one of the best sites to see the declining and rare Jamaican Blackbird
Crested Quail-doves are most active at dusk and dawn. But early morning is certainly the best time to locate them by listening for their mournful calls and, with a little luck, they can sometimes be glimpsed feeding on the open road at Ecclesdown.
Due to the unpredictable nature of these doves we had allowed ourselves several chances on our itinerary to try secure footage of the birds. Even still, I certainly did not hold out much hope of actually securing usable footage of wild Crested Quail-doves! Enter our trusty driver Murdock on the very first morning of our quest. Our party had split up along the road to follow up on various promising dove calls close to the road. Three of us were loaded with video equipment to maximize our chances and we even had BirdLife Jamaica President and local, Ricardo Miller, along to assist us in our mission.
Murdock, although an avid birder himself, had stayed behind with the vehicle and fallen asleep. He was awoken, as could only happen to a true birder, by a calling Crested Quail-dove, and he cried out to us that he had the bird on the road. I was too far down the road to hear his excited cries. But, and this is where luck comes in, the bird took off and landed smack in between me and the rest of the party. For the next 10 minutes the bird walked back and forth between us and we were armed on all sides with video!
Seeing a Crested Quail-dove right in the open like this was truly special. Special because we got to witness this dove’s unique habit of pumping its long tail up and down as it walks.
A trip to Ecclesdown is an indispensable part of any birding itinerary to Jamaica. Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is within a short drive and the hotel owners will gladly organize transport and a local guide. Be prepared for a witch-hunt of note but, with a little luck and some local expertise, the elusive Mountain Witch might just make an appearance.
Watch the full episode here…