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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Dominican Getaway, Feb. 18-Mar, 2, 2006,
Sun seekers from northern climes prove it in their multi-thousands every year: the Caribbean Islands make ideal mid-winter escapes from long, tedious winters. For bird-watchers they provide the added bonus of a fine package of species not found anywhere else. The sought after endemics and birding sites are for the most part well known, logistics generally quite straightforward and costs reasonable. Most islands are readily amenable to determined do-it-yourself birding, but knowledgeable guides are also available for somewhat more relaxed approaches. In addition, the various islands’ close proximity to each other invites convenient island-hopping itineraries.
By my count, though numbers vary a bit with the particular taxonomic source followed, there are 105 or maybe a few more single island endemics and in the range of a further 70 multi-island endemics in the Caribbean region. All told, an impressive array of tempting targets. And there is a further, smaller suite of what might be called Caribbean specialties, largely restricted to the islands but with distributions also ranging to the adjacent mainland. Arguably, Hispaniola, and more specifically the Dominican Republic, offers the best single venue with 30-32 endemic species and 25 or so Caribbean endemics and specialties. Not a bad haul.
OVERVIEW OF THE COUNTRY, BIRDS AND BIRDING LOCATIONS:
Hispaniola is big, the second largest island in the Caribbean at some 76,500 sq km. The Dominican Republic occupies its eastern two thirds and Haiti the western third. It has a varied topography. Three different mountain ranges each rising to 2-3000+ m asl dominate the western part of the country while rolling countryside mostly below 1000m occupies most of the east, complemented in both regions by coastal lowlands and river valleys. Major terrestrial habitats range from large extents of dry mesquite-dominated scrub and woodland, savannah-like communities in some areas, rich moist forest in a few places, and in the mountains to various iterations of cloud forest (depending on slope aspect and hence moisture) and even alpine-like pine forest. There are at least three large lakes in the southwest with some accompanying wetland habitat, and mangroves along some parts of the coast.
Columbus landed on Hispaniola on his first voyage of 1492 and the island has been essentially colonized from that time on. With such a long history of European settlement it should be no surprise that much of the island is fundamentally altered so that relatively little natural wildlife habitat now remains although important examples have been incorporated into national parks. Fully one third of the Dominican Republic’s 9 million inhabitants are aged between 0-14 years, so human population pressures obviously will intensify even further.
Birding the Dominican Republic, as with the other Caribbean Islands, revolves mainly around seeing as many of the island-specific endemics as possible, plus other specialties of the Caribbean basin. Happily, as of this date at least, all of the Hispaniolan endemics can still be found fairly readily with some help, although several species are seriously declining and are regarded as seriously endangered. For our purposes we counted 31 endemics, including Golden Swallow (which would now appear to be gone from Jamaica), but not yet the “Hispaniolan” Oriole (which our excellent guide Miguel Landestoy told us is now recognized by at least one authority as specifically distinct from the Greater Antillean Oriole, itself only recently split from Black-cowled Oriole). All of the endemics still occur in the Sierra de Bahoruco in the southwest corner of the Dominican Republic, and all but two or three are normally seen in 3-5 days in the area. The Grey-crowned Palm-Tanager although evidently fairly common in Haiti is very rare in adjacent southwestern Dominican Republic (Miguel himself has not yet seen it here). Ridgway’s Hawk, though decidedly irregular in this region, continues to be found fairly dependably in Los Haitises National Park near Sabana de la Mar in the northeast coastal region. The Eastern Chat-Tanager can also be seen in the Sierra de Bahoruco but it is very local here compared to sites in the Cordillera Central.
The Sierra de Bahoruco is a mountain range extending from Haiti into the southwestern corner of the Dominican Republic where it drops into the Caribbean Sea. The area is less than half a day’s drive west then south of Santo Domingo on good roads to the town of Barahona which is the usual base of operations here. Birding habitat is protected, nominally at least, in the Sierra Bahoruco National Park which rises to some 2368m above the coastal lowland. The Sierra’s north slope is the best birding area but it takes a full two hours to reach the cloud forest/pine forest interface (at around 1700m) from Barahona, driving first to the small town of Duverge on a fairly decent paved road then on rougher gravel to Puerto Escondido. From here, at least half the trip timewise, it is upwards over tough mountain roads to and beyond the military post of El Aquate which is almost on the Haitian border. A high clearance vehicle is mandatory and 4 wheel drive advisable. Habitats, elevations and specific birds seen are covered in more detail in the annotated species list and the Daily Log below.
The southern slope of the Sierra presents a considerably different aspect, evidently a fair bit drier and where pines become the dominant tree at a much lower elevation. A few different endemics are to be had (for example Hispaniolan Crossbill) although in general it is less diverse than the northern slope. The good news is that an excellent paved road runs up a little past the famous concrete water cistern at 1070m, and this is as far as one needs to go. Unfortunately this too is a long drive from Barahona (2-3 hours), so the area is best visited from Pedernales on the Haitian border from which it takes only 20 minutes to drive.
Most birding trips also take in the Cordillera Central at the Elbano Verde Scientific Reserve, where Eastern Chat-Tanager is fairly common, though, as Miguel pointed out, it is easy to hear but very difficult to see in dense understory vegetation (he himself has laid eyes on it only twice here in a dozen or so attempts). We ended up skipping this venue, opting instead for another day on the north slope of the Sierra de Bahoruco to try for better looks at Bay-breasted Cuckoo and La Selle Thrush. Eastern Chat-Tanager has also recently been found in smallish remnant patches of cloud forest on a road up the east face of the Sierra, no more than an hour’s drive from Barahona (but it is not within the national park). We took a late afternoon flier on it and through a combination of luck and Miguel’s fine ears were able to see the bird, sort of. At least we heard it.
Although a full day’s drive from the Barahona area (a half day from Santo Domingo) the best area to see Ridgway’s Hawk is near Sabana de la Mar in Los Haitises National Park on the north-east coast. We had originally consigned this location to “play-it-by-ear” status, depending on how we fared in the southwest. But having eliminated any outstanding need to go to Elbano Verde we decided to try for the hawk, and were easily successful.
One to two hours north of Santo Domingo is a quite extensive area of cattle ranch country, probably formerly savannah habitat, in the vicinity of Monte Plata. It is a good area for Ashy-faced Owl (if not already seen in the southwest), and is also the home of an interesting endemic subspecies of the Double-striped Thick-knee. We wanted to see both species very much so spent a late afternoon and early morning here.
Lastly, in Santo Domingo itself is the Botanical Gardens, a lovely large area of gardens and arboretum together with remnant native forest. A lot of the Hispaniolan endemics can be seen easily right here and it is a terrific place to start off a trip (or in our case end it). For us the big attraction was a chance to see West Indian Whistling Duck again and we were thrilled to have prolonged point-blank views in the scope, a fabulous photo opportunity. And it is also an excellent place to see one of Hispaniola’s greatest attractions of all, the Palmchat, which continues to hold out on most taxonomic lists as the endemic monotypic family, Dulidae. Nest building was in full swing and many birds were carrying out-sized sticks to their bulky multi-apartment nests.
All told, we recorded some 128 birds (while making no attempt at running up the total with, for example, migrant species) of which 41 were new for us. Of the Hispaniolan endemics we saw 30 of the 31, with very little chance of seeing Grey-crowned Palm-Tanager in any case. We also got 17 of 21 possible Caribbean breeding endemics and a further 3 of 5 Caribbean specialties (note that you might get somewhat different totals for all of these categories – it all depends on which references you follow for taxonomy and species’ ranges). So, I think we have to be pleased.
Day 1 (Feb. 18): Toronto to Santo Domingo, arriving 18:35, flying time 4 hr 05 min.
Day 2 (Feb. 19): AM: Early birding around the Quality Hotel near the airport at Santo Domingo. Drive to Barahona. PM: Lago Enriquillo about 10 km beyond Duverge.
Day 3 (Feb. 20): North slope of Parque Nacional Sierra Bahoruco, to @1850m and forest near Puerto Escondido at @365m.
Day 4 (Feb. 21): AM: North Slope of PNSB to @830m. Evening: night birding from a road @10 km south-west of Barahona.
Day 5 (Feb. 22): AM: Travel to Pedernales stopping to bird inland from the town of Enriquillo and at Cabo Rojo. PM: South slope of PNSB (Aceitillar) to 1070m.
Day 6 (Feb. 23): AM: South slope PNSB. PM: Return to Barahona then drive around the periphery of Lago Enriquillo.
Day 7 (Feb. 24): AM: North slope PNSB. PM: Relax at hotel.
Day 8 (Feb. 25): AM: North Slope PNSB and forest near Puerto Escondido. PM: East slope of Sierra de Bahoruco (outside park).
Day 9 (Feb. 26): Drive from Barahona to Monte Plata. 17:30: Evening in ranch land near Monte Plata.
Day 10 (Feb. 27): Early AM: Birding in ranch land then drive to hotel near Sabana de la Mar. 17:00: shorebirding at Sabana.
Day 11 (Feb. 28): Hike from hotel into Los Haitises NP for Ridgway’s Hawk. PM: Drive to Santo Domingo.
Day 12 (Mar. 01): AM: Botanical Gardens at Santo Domingo. PM: Shopping. Evening: To Hotel Empajador to view roosting Hispaniolan Parakeets (Pericos).
Day 13 (Mar. 02): AM: Rain. PM: To airport for departure back to Toronto.
PLANNING AND LOGISTICAL NOTES:
Extremely straightforward. Many airlines transport tourists to the Dominican Republic as part of
package deals with resorts. We were able to book cut rate seats on Air Canada charter flights directly from their web site. Note that a visa is not required but that a $10 US tourist fee is charged at arrival.
Car Rental and Within-country Travel:
We briefly considered driving a rental vehicle ourselves but opted to engage a bird guide and driver instead (see below). Because Miguel Landestoy does not yet have a driver’s license or car he got his cousin Osiris to drive. We rented the vehicle on the internet from Thrifty for pickup at the airport in Santo Domingo. It was scheduled to be a 4WD Mitsubishi Montero but we were upgraded to a full-sized Ford Explorer, almost brand new. Total cost was $896.32 US for 12 days excluding insurance which for us was covered by one of our credit cards. The main roads were generally good and we could have handled most of the actual driving ourselves alright, but we definitely would have encountered problems finding our way through towns and cities, particularly Santo Domingo, and also in locating many of the specific birding locations. Also, the distance involved in reaching prime birding habitat on the north slope of the Sierra de Bahoruco from Barahona combined with the rough roads and very early departures would have been exhausting. So, our recommendation is to hire a guide (and separate driver if necessary), and make sure you have a high clearance vehicle, preferably with 4WD.
Food and Accommodation:
Everything was fine. All hotels were good to adequate, and we had no problems with food. As is the norm we drank only bottled water or that supplied in pitchers in our hotel rooms. Particularly when we birded the north slope of Parque Nacional Sierra Bahoruco out of Barahona we were a long way from any restaurant, so we routinely bought drinks, fruit and sandwich makings in the evening for the next day’s breakfast and lunch.
We stayed at the following places. Indicated costs are for two, and include a quite hefty 26% for taxes and service charges. Thus in the Dominican Republic you really don’t have to leave large tips.
Barahona: Hotel Costa Larimar, $57 US. 6 nights. This is a resort type hotel on the ocean though not in one of the main resort areas. It seems to cater mostly to Dominicans on holiday and weekend getaways and did a brisk trade while we were there (6 nights). Miguel reserved it for us and although their web site listed room-only and with-meals options he had some difficulty booking the former, the hotel apparently being in the process of converting strictly to package deals. This would not have been suitable for us because we were usually away at breakfast and lunch time, and meal packages were quite expensive. So we ate most meals at the Hotel Caribe where Miguel and Osiris stayed ($30 US). The Costa Larimar was otherwise fine with a pool, bar and so on. The only problem we encountered was being informed at check-in of a further 26% surcharge for using a credit card! Miguel was not told this when he booked nor did the web site mention it. When we demurred the desk clerk arbitrarily lowered the surcharge to 13%. We paid cash in $US and topped up our cash supplies (in RD pesos) at ATM machines.
Pedernales: $27 US, no credit card, with breakfast (good strong coffee). Unfortunately we forget the name of the small and quiet family-run establishment, that although the most basic place we stayed was quite charming and restful. One night.
Monte Plata: Hotel El Toro, @$23 US, credit card accepted. Most definitely not a tourist hotel; the restaurant was packed with locals having a good time and for that reason we enjoyed it too. The rooms were very large and perfectly adequate. One night.
Sabana de la Mar: Hotel El Cano Hondo, @$53 US, with breakfast. A very strange place built by/on/over a stream that has been further altered to divert water channels with little cascades through and around the restaurant and lodgings area. A lot of work went into masonry on the buildings to simulate a rustic, grotto-like effect with somewhat equivocal results, but it is unquestionably unique. However, a place that allows pet White-necked Crows to roam around at will pulling apart the table arrangements and generally raising hell cannot be bad! One night.
Santo Domingo: First night at the Quality Hotel near the airport, $89 US with breakfast, credit card. Expensive though a convenient modern hotel.
Last 2 nights: Hostal Nicolas Nader, @$96 US including breakfast, credit card. This is in the old part of the city, and hence the oldest European urban area in the new world, many buildings dating from the first decade of the 16th century. The hotel itself incorporates part of a very old palace. Described as charming, it sounded good for our last 2 nights and we also thought it would be interesting to look around the old city. In fact the hotel seemed over-priced to us. Maybe it was because it was late in the trip, or because the side mirrors of the vehicle were vandalized during the last night, but we found several things to be a little critical of. Most important was the lack of secure parking. Though we were told to leave the vehicle at a nearby parking lot the attendant would not let us park it there in the evening, instead telling us to give him our keys and he would come to take the vehicle and park it late at night. We did not feel comfortable doing this and I suppose we paid the price.
Health and Safety:
A non-issue this trip. As mentioned above we had no problems with food, or any other health issues during the trip. Although we were warned about mosquitoes in a few places they were barely noticeable. Nonetheless, malaria is known from the border area with Haiti, exactly where we spent most of our time, so we took malaria pills. In terms of safety we also experienced no problems or threats of any kind that we were aware of, but we did notice that Osiris and Miguel kept an eagle eye on us in public places. We visited Miguel’s parents’ house in Bani (between Santo Domingo and Barahona on the coast highway) for a lovely lunch. The exterior gate exited directly onto the street and we noticed that it was never left unlocked, even for a minute or two.
Our visit coincided with the dry season which, except on the north coast, extends from November through April with March being the driest month; May is the wettest. Except for our last day when it rained during the morning in Santo Domingo we had almost uniformly lovely weather, mostly sunshine and with low to mid 30s daytime temperatures, falling into the lower 20s at night. However it was much cooler in early morning on the Sierra de Bahoruco. For example on Feb. 25 at 1520m on the north slope it was only 9°C at 06:45. In the highest areas it can go down to freezing. In general there is far more diurnal and altitude related temperature variation than seasonal. Dawn was close to 06:45 and dusk around 19:00; sufficient light for birding spanning roughly 07:00 to 18:45.
At the time of our visit $1 US was worth about 32 pesos (@29 per $ Canadian). After consultation with Miguel via email our plan was to use a credit card wherever possible (mainly for hotels and car rental) but take sufficient US dollars to pay for Miguel’s and Osiris’s fees and to change into pesos at cambios or banks to pay for the hotels at Pedernales, Sabana de la Mar and Monte Plata, most meals, petrol, park entry fees, small amounts for the toll highways near Santo Domingo, tips, and possible incidentals such as potential tire repairs, etc. To the extent our estimates proved to be in error, or should we need extra money for something, we planned to use ATMs.
The plan still seems broadly reasonable but the need to pay cash for the hotel at Barahona in order to avoid the prohibitive surcharge for using a credit card immediately threw a spanner into it. On the other hand most of the petrol stations (Shell at any event) took credit cards, as did the El Toro Hotel at Monte Plata. Also, I think the only place we had to pay an entry fee was at the Botanical Gardens (only a pittance) although this apparently cannot be counted on. At any rate we ended up hitting ATMs somewhat more than we had anticipated. The first one we tried, in Barahona, would not accept our card, but the next one did although the maximum we could extract at one go was 600 pesos (only around $17.50 US)! So we had to keep at it for awhile and fortunately the machine coughed up multiple sequential withdrawals. In Santo Domingo we don’t know what the maximum was but Candy was able to take out 8000 pesos in one withdrawal.
We used A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies by Raffaele et al as we had done a few years ago in Jamaica. Perhaps we are hard to please but we again found quite a long list of things to complain about. However, to be fair, birders really are extremely fortunate to have field guides of this caliber, not only for the Caribbean region but now almost anywhere you could wish to go. In any case most of our complaints were niggling and did not bear directly on the matter of making appropriate identifications.
It pretty much goes without saying that local expertise always helps. We got Miguel A Landestoy’s name from published trip reports (www.birdtours.co.uk) and were able to line up a trip with him with no trouble. As mentioned previously it is necessary to arrange independent transportation and a driver if you don’t want to do the driving yourself, although I believe Miguel is currently in the process of obtaining a driver’s license.
Strictly in terms of birds there is no doubt that we saw much more than we could have hoped for alone. For starters the Dominican Republic is two-thirds of a big island and although the birding locations are mostly well known, getting to the right places and then knowing the best specific spots is not nearly so straightforward. Miguel knows exactly where to go. He also has very sharp eyes and superb ears; he has not only all the songs down cold but even the short call notes, permanent residents and migrants alike. He also has a mini disc player, essential for several species even at the best stops, eg for the 3 nightjars and potoo. He repeatedly displayed an uncanny knack for coming up with birds – he is extremely good for sure, but I don’t think he would object if I said he is one of those people who seem to be plain bird-lucky too. An example: dusk had just turned into night near Monte Plata. It was hot and sticky and we were a bit weary as we finished thrashing through a rank overgrown pasture in search of the Thick-knee. It was plain that this pasture did not offer a hope, but the landowner claimed he’d seen them out there and offered to show us. I wondered how many hundreds of ticks and/or chiggers we’d just picked up (actually none to our later and considerable relief). So, we got in the car and drove a few hundred meters along the road to another pasture, from what we could see with shorter grass and thus more promising. Miguel plugged the spotlight into the cigarette lighter, hopped out and flicked on the light. And immediately announced “Thick-knee in the light”. Besides being an obviously intelligent young man with a thoughtful approach to life, Miguel, and Osiris too, were good fun and we enjoyed them both. Miguel can be reached at: email@example.com .
Day 1 (Feb. 18):
All day travelling although only 4 hours 5 minutes in the air. We arrived at Santo Domingo at 18:35 local time, 27°C and just as the sun was hitting the horizon. We cleared immigration and customs quickly and then on to the Thrifty counter where we were expected although we had to wait for a couple of other customers to be processed. The promised Mitsubishi Montero 4WD SUV was unavailable so we were upgraded to a full-sized Ford Explorer for the same price. Upon asking directions to the Quality Hotel we learned that it is not the mere 500m from the airport advertised on their web site, in fact more along the lines of 2-3 km. However, the route was straightforward and we were at the hotel by about 20:00. A good modern hotel, expensive but convenient for the first night.
Day 2 (Feb. 19):
A buffet breakfast was available at 06:30 and we ticked our first endemic as we ate when a Black-crowned Palm-Tanager perched briefly on the iron window grill. By 07:00 it was light outside, and since Miguel and Osiris were not coming until 09:00 we decided to walk along a track in the mesquite scrub behind the hotel. It was quite good. Right off the bat we saw our main target of the trip, the endemic Palmchat and sole member of the family Dulidae. Very nice, although a common bird. Two other fine endemics were also here, Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo and Hispaniolan Woodpecker, and we rounded off the mini-list with White-winged Dove, Antillean Palm-Swift, 100s of Cave Swallows overhead, Grey Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird, Bananaquit and 20 or so introduced Village Weavers (from Africa).
Miguel and Osiris arrived on time and we were soon on our way west along the good coastal highway towards Barahona. We made a brief stop at Miguel’s home in Bani so the guys could pick up their luggage and Candy and I observed several lovely Caribbean Martins hawking over the city and chattering on utility wires, only arrived back from their South American winter quarters a couple of weeks ago. It was a pleasant drive. The Caribbean Sea along the Dominican coast is a sensational shade of bright blue, almost turquoise. The shoreline is mostly rocky, sometimes with low cliffs, and with only the occasional sandy beach in this region. Vegetation for the most part was mesquite scrub or woodland.
By 14:00 we had checked into the nice Hotel Costa Larimar in Barahona, where the afternoon temperature was only 30°C, and by 14:30 we were off towards Lago Enriquillo over roads that were to become all too familiar over the next week. Approximately 10 km beyond the town of Duverge we turned north onto a flat, dry dirt road heading towards the lake nestled in a rift valley between 2 sets of mountains, threading our way through mesquite and other small trees and shrubs. The main target here was the endemic Hispaniolan Palm-Crow, somewhat strangely uncommon and local in the Dominican Republic, and we ended up seeing around 10, some eating the fruit of one of the Opuntia cacti. The only other new Hispaniolan endemic we encountered was Broad-billed Tody but there were several Caribbean endemics and specialties: Plain Pigeon, Mangrove Cuckoo, Stolid Flycatcher, Greater Antillean Bullfinch and Greater Antillean Oriole as well as some overwintering migrants such as American Redstart, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped, Prairie, Palm, Cape May and Black-throated Blue warblers. The latter two species winter almost exclusively in the Caribbean and we were struck by their numbers throughout the trip. Lago Enriquillo is a bit weird. It is large, some 15 x 80 km, lies 44m below sea level, and is saline (@36 ppt). Its water sources are not salty, but there is no outlet from the lake. Instead water is lost through evaporation in the hot conditions, causing salts to build up. In places it imparts a whitish cast to the soil and the sparse nearby vegetation was obviously halophytic.
Day 3 (Feb. 20):
An important day. By 03:55 we were on our way back towards Duverge, but this time turning off to Puerto Escondido. Some 10-12 km beyond the town we parked in an area of dry scrub with rough pasture. At 05:45 Miguel played his recorder and within a few minutes we were thrilled to be viewing an Ashy-faced Owl in the spotlight, perched in a palm in full view. Next to Palmchat this was the bird I’d wanted most, always having a hankering to see another species in the family Tytonidae besides Barn Owl. In the same area we were treated to a chorus of Hispaniolan Nightjars but today we didn’t actually see any.
Then it was up the rough dirt/gravel/rocky road, finally into a type of cloud forest on the north slope of Parque Nacional Sierra Bahoruco. As dawn broke at 1600m the first bird to show in the dim light was a La Selle Thrush, flying into a tree just over our heads in response to the mini disc but then quickly diving into thick foliage as we scrambled to get the bins on it. If I’d known then how difficult this bird was going to be over the next few days I would have been much better prepared! We also had glimpses of a smallish dark Catharus type thrush that must have been Bicknell’s – Miguel also heard its call note. Yet a third thrush provided superb looks, the beautiful Hispaniolan race of Rufous-throated Solitaire whose lovely haunting song would become familiar. And we also saw Red-legged Thrush.
We walked up the road through broad-leaved cloud forest and gradually into an alpine-like pine community at about 1850m. More Hispaniolan and Caribbean endemics came thick and fast, the always exciting flush of new birds in a new birding destination: Scaly-naped Pigeon, Antillean Mango, Hispaniolan Emerald, Vervain Hummingbird, Hispaniolan Pewee, Greater Antillean Elaenia, Green-tailed and White-winged warblers, Hispaniolan Spindalis, Antillean Siskin and cracking vocal and rather tame Hispaniolan Trogons.
We descended to about 1430m to a spot where trees and much of the understory has been cleared – this is the site of the infamous potato market where Haitians bring (smuggle) produce from just across the border to sell to Dominican middlemen with trucks. It was mercifully quiet now but over the next days there was considerable illicit (I presume) commerce taking place a bit farther down the slope involving huge sacks of avocados. There is an obvious military presence in this area, but it is said that by distributing a little well-placed cash this is no obstacle. Such petty corruption is apparently an everyday fact of life and in itself may be irrelevant, but clearly the park, which represents some of the last good habitat for a whole range of endemic birds many of which are under severe threat, is suffering. Nonetheless we saw some good birds near here: Narrow-billed Tody, Golden Swallows twittering high overhead, a lovely pair of Antillean Euphonias and finally, after several attempts, we had great views of a pair of Western Chat-Tanagers.
Day 4 (Feb. 21):
Today it was back over the same roads, but we concentrated our efforts lower down the north slope, stopping first at 06:30 at about 530m. Miguel’s mini disc precipitated a loud, mournful chorus of Least Poorwills but they stayed out of sight. When it became light enough we saw 5 Hispaniolan Parrots overhead, Olive-throated Parakeets and a nice pair of Loggerhead Kingbirds. We stopped again at 800m at one of Miguel’s most reliable places for the now very rare and endangered Bay-breasted Cuckoo and he sadly lamented “They are not doing well”. Apart from the usual invocation of degradation and loss of their habitat I gather the full cause is not known. He trawled up and down the road for awhile with the mini disc with no response and I know my attention began to flag when Miguel suddenly whirled to point behind us where a Bay-breasted Cuckoo in turn observed us silently from a tree top. We had only a split second look as the bird quickly departed. We tried again lower down in drier forest at about 490m. No cuckoo but we did, finally, get fine views of Flat-billed Vireo near a now tattered old nest.
We took most of the afternoon off. Candy and I strolled down to the beach and had a swim in the brilliant blue Caribbean. At one point I noticed a large, broad “seal’s head” projecting from the water off a mangrove island. At least that’s what it looked like to us based on all the seals we’d seen in the sub-arctic. But a Monck Seal, for example, is now very unlikely. More probably it was a Manatee because although rare they are known from this area. If so, a first for us. In the evening we drove a few kilometers southwest out of town then northeast a short distance on a dirt road, trying once more for nightjars. By luck we caught sight of a flying Chuck-will’s Widow though not specifically trying for it. Another enjoyable Least Poorwill serenade turned more positive when a bird flew across the road over our heads in the dusk. Then even better, a Northern Potoo actually perched on power wires beside the road in response to the mini disc and sat there for several seconds in the spotlight.
Day 5 (Feb. 22):
Today at 08:15 we headed out of town to the south-west. Already at 09:00 it was 29°C. At the town of Enriquillo we turned inland a short distance into some agricultural country with scattered patches of semi-natural habitat. Our target was the other endemic corvid, the White-necked Crow. It too is local and uncommon for some reason not readily apparent to me. Eventually we heard them – loud, varied, raucous but also with musical gurgling notes that recalled ravens to Candy and I more than the crows at home. And we saw several. We also got fine looks at several more Greater Antillean Orioles. Then we continued our pleasant drive, mostly along the scenic coast, checking in at Cabo Rojo on the off chance of flamingos but none were there. We saw some of the common seaside birds such as Royal Tern and Brown Pelican and also a Northern Waterthrush, looking out of place to us in some isolated mangroves growing in the sand back from the ocean. And an Antillean Mango repeatedly sallied out for insects from its perch in a clump of mangroves right on the beach.
From here we ascended the south slope of Sierra Bahoruco National Park as far as the water collecting tank or cistern at 1070m. It looked much drier here than on the north slope (and as we would later see, even more so than the east slope). As we drove up we noted that the forest was mainly pine-dominated. The little broad-leaved cloud forest that we encountered was confined to a narrow belt between the dry, low-elevation mesquite community and the pine zone.
The tank is the famously reliable place to see the recently split Hispaniolan Crossbill (from White-winged Crossbill). There wasn’t much remaining water, and what was there looked pretty insalubrious, but sure enough as we drove up two males and a female crossbill were on the concrete at the water’s edge drinking. We got there at the hottest part of the day so ate lunch in the shade and watched the procession of birds coming for water. All told, we saw perhaps 20+ crossbills and really enjoyed the spectacle, ironically (for people who lived in the Canadian sub-arctic for close to 10 years) getting some of our best ever looks. Several crossbills also deliberately and repeatedly probed the mud (aka grungy ooze) at the edge of the tank but I have no idea what they were getting from it. A few attractive Antillean Siskins also came for water. Also, hundreds of swallows coursed overhead and swooped low over the water to drink. Most of them were Caribbean Martins but with a lot of Cave Swallows at times, and we saw a single Barn Swallow. But best, after quite a lot of scanning, were 10 or so Golden Swallows. They were worth the wait. In the bright sunshine they did look golden-green, just as depicted on the plate in the field guide, which beforehand I had decided must be an artist’s exaggeration. We walked on the road through the pine forest and finally got our eyes on a couple of Antillean Piculets, a vocal bird that we found hard to see – they had given us fits up till now (and continued to do so). And we made a clean sweep of the three species of parrots, all perched and all giving good looks. Beautiful magenta colored Tetramicra orchids grew next to the road all along here.
Then it was on to Pedernales to our rather attractive and quaint little inn, arriving after dark and with the hydro temporarily out. Unfortunately we forget the name but of course Miguel will know it.
Day 6 (Feb. 23):
From Pedernales it is only about 20 minutes back into the park via the south slope road. We left early in order to try for Hispaniolan Nightjar before dawn and were successful, first seeing the eye-shine of a perched bird in the spotlight, then in flight. With nothing new to expect here we started back down when Miguel spotted a lovely Vine Snake (Uromacer frenatus) on the road, around 5 feet long but pencil thin, bright green and with a nifty black mask. After ushering it off the road we returned to Barahona then proceeded on to Lago Enriquillo once again in hopes of seeing Caribbean Flamingo, recently split from the old world Greater Flamingo. It was a long hot drive around to the north side of the lake. When we finally worked our way down to the water’s edge we found that the normal shoreline and shallow water zone was completely submerged due to the stiff onshore wind so there was nowhere we could get a decent view of the lake. This was the only time on the trip that we completely struck out on our objectives. Back to Barahona at last at 19:35.
Day 7 (Feb. 24):
When putting together the itinerary we scheduled an extra day for the north slope of the Sierra de Bahoruco in case any of the endemics had escaped us to that point. A good thing too because we still had not seen White-fronted Quail-Dove, one of our main targets, and we also wanted better looks at La Selle Thrush and Bay-breasted Cuckoo if possible. So, although not looking forward to the drive, we once again left the hotel at 04:37, arriving in the prime birding zone just above 1700m at 06:43, just a few minutes before full light. Birding was basically a carbon copy of the other mornings here. We got glimpses of La Selle and Bicknell’s thrushes, better looks at Red-legged Thrush, and excellent looks at the Solitaire and Trogon, the usual terrific little Narrow-billed Todies and of course many of the other commoner endemics. At 09:00 (1520m) Miguel took us a short distance into a trail leading down the mountain, made by Haitians making forays of one sort or another into the Dominican Republic. Suddenly a fluttering sound and a Quail-Dove flying low and pretty much right at us, then past our heads and down into the thick understory. Not perfect, but readily identifiable. Farther down we tried again for the cuckoo but no luck.
Above us on the mountain slope close to where we had just been smoke was billowing up above the canopy - another example of the destructive pressures being placed on the park. Having almost completely denuded their own country’s forest Haitians now cross the border into the adjacent park, cut trees and burn the wood to make charcoal which they then pack back into Haiti to sell. Clearly visible in the air, but apparently no enforcement.
We took part of another afternoon off to rest and swim. At dinner we discussed the remainder of the itinerary, which had us leaving tomorrow morning for Elbano Verde in the Cordillera Central where we would be looking mainly for Eastern Chat-Tanager. Although it would be nice to see Candy and I were not that concerned because when we get right down to it we are not totally dedicated twitchers. So Miguel suggested maybe staying here one more day to try the north slope once again for better looks at our two nemesis birds, and also to explore a road ascending the eastern slope of the Sierra de Bahoruco where Chat-Tanagers considered to be Easterns recently had been found in some forest remnants.
Day 8 (Feb. 25):
So we did it all again, departing at 04:38 and arriving at 06:45 at altitude 1520m. We walked slowly up the road to 1650m. A La Selle thrush was singing and came in to the recording, but just would not cooperate; nonetheless we had our best looks to date, seeing three birds in all. We also saw two more Quail-Doves in flight, one flushing off the roadside then away from us showed the purplish coloring on the back. At 08:50 we started down to Miguel’s cuckoo spot at 800m. No luck here so we tried again at 633m with the same result. We continued downwards into the heat, seeing only a road-killed Boa (Epicrates striatus) and then a Merlin on the road, itself alive but eating a dead Scaly-naped Pigeon - quite a big bird for a Merlin to handle, but then again its former name in North America was Pigeon Hawk.
Around noon we revisited some pleasant moister forest near Puerto Escondido at around 365m. Miguel heard a Bay-breasted Cuckoo call, but it would not come in to the recording. So we walked into the forest, coming across a perched flock of Hispaniolan Parrots that burst out calling when they knew we’d spotted them. And Miguel’s sharp ears detected the rustling of fallen leaves then the two Key West Quail-Doves responsible for the sound. We had a great look at one that hopped onto a log before flushing.
From here we drove up the eastern slope, the road good at first then becoming rough. Miguel was not sure exactly where to go so we nosed our way upwards, passing smallish bits of remnant forest and eventually stopping at about 1300m at a larger example. It was all but silent initially but came to life a bit as it started to cool off around 16:00. And soon Miguel picked up the sharp, harsh call notes of Chat-Tanagers. As always they were tough to see but with perseverance we managed a couple of glimpses of skulking birds. There were perhaps half a dozen altogether. Miguel was also pleased to see a couple of White-winged Warblers, another species with a local distribution. He said that the habitat here was much more like that in the Cordillera Central, and it certainly was different from anything we’d seen so far – extremely dense understory with verdant ferns, tree ferns, bamboo and other shrubbery as well as much more lush growths of Spanish moss, bromeliads and other epiphytes. The Sierra de Bahoruco is one of the clearest examples I’ve seen of how varying conditions associated with slope aspect produce markedly contrasting responses of vegetation.
Day 9 (Feb. 26):
Largely a travel day as we departed Barahona for the ranch country of Monte Plata. Initially we drove east, back along the coast road. We stopped for easily the best meal of the trip at the home of Miguel’s parents in Bani. Then north through Santo Domingo and in about an hour we pulled up at El Toro Hotel. Apart from cattle pasture some of the land in this area grows cash crops, including a surprisingly large amount of oil palm plantations. Around 17:30 we drive out into the countryside, stopping here and there at pastures with relatively short grass and generally ignoring those with ranker growth. Thick-knees are also in decline in the Dominican Republic. They are mostly nocturnal so we are likely a bit too early. Miguel questions a few people along the roads about them, showing the illustration in the field guide. One man indicates that he sees this bird behind his house and leads us into the field. But it sure does not look right, all high thick grass and shrubs. By the time we stagger out of there it is almost dark. Then a short drive through a small oil palm plantation and Miguel says stop. He no sooner plays the spotlight out onto the field then casually announces that there is a Thick-knee in the light. We get fabulous scope views and Candy even takes photos. A little more driving around the roads and there is a Barn Owl in flight, then magically it perches on a fence just ahead of the car and we watch as it swivels its head around and scratches itself with its talons. Candy gets superb pictures. So it is a festive dinner with several Presidente grandes (the Dominican’s ubiquitous beer) sliding down nicely back at El Toro, alongside a good crowd of locals celebrating independence day.
Day 10 (Feb. 27):
Before dawn we were back shining the spotlight into the same pasture. This time two heads peered at us out of the grass, in almost exactly the same spot, then they stalked about for a bit until we lost them just as it turned light. Great birds! The shrubby edges of this same field also gave us five Yellow-faced Grassquits, two Black-whiskered Vireos and the endemic subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrow.
By 10:20 we were on the road to Sabana de la Mar, by way of Hato Meyer. I use the term road somewhat loosely. This is definitely the “back way”, and judging by the number of times we stopped to ask for directions it seemed to be a new route for Osiris and Miguel too. Time seemed to stand still as we bumped slowly along, but it was only 13:45 when we pulled into our hotel outside of Sabana. Hindsight often provides a kinder view than real time, and from that vantage point the journey now seems kind of fun. The El Cano Hondo Hotel is hard to describe, but it is unique and not soon to be forgotten. A bit of a sprawling place, the buildings basically are built right over a lovely clear stream tumbling out of the hills which in turn has been divided and diverted into several smaller channels, each with an assortment of little falls, riffles and pools. Running water flows everywhere. The buildings are constructed in a self-conscious rustic manner to look like caves and cliffs. Just off one set of dining tables a resident Louisiana Waterthrush plucked tidbits from the edges of one of the pools. Pet White-necked Crows raised a loud hue and cry at everyone and prowled around the tables dismantling the flower arrangements, picking apart the menus and also tried to make off with sunglasses and any lightweight camera gear left unattended. So, even if it seemed slightly eccentric at first, a fine place! At 17:00 we drove into the town to look at shorebirds - nothing out of the ordinary but our first Wilson’s Plovers in over 30 years and a small flock of Sandwich Terns were appreciated.
Day 11 (Feb. 28):
Shortly after 07:30 we were hiking into Los Haitises National Park where Miguel knew of a nesting territory for Ridgway’s Hawk, our last possible Hispaniolan endemic. We walked for half to three-quarters of an hour up into a little valley occupied by a squatter couple who grew fruit and vegetables. Miguel pointed out that they did no real harm and might even protect the nesting hawks by being there. In turn the hawks helped keep down rodents, although also taking chicks from time to time. At any event the man certainly knew the hawks, smiling and pointing out the call, and within a few minutes Candy had spotted the male perched in a tree near the edge of their plots. He soon flew, but was immediately replaced by the female who then sat for several minutes in the warming sunshine, preening and just peering around as we watched him in the scope. On our return walk Hispaniolan Parrots flew about the area and a Ruddy Quail-Dove flushed beside the trail.
By early afternoon we were en route to Santo Domingo and later as we worked our way through the intimidating narrow and confusing streets of the old city we were doubly glad that we had not decided to drive ourselves. The Hostal Nicolas Nader is in the heart of the old district, partly fashioned from an early 16th century palace. Certainly with a pleasant ambience, but also rather expensive and with several small annoyances that could easily be remedied.
Miguel left us at this point to join another birding party that had just arrived, but Osiris stayed on to pilot us around the city for the last two days. Although he did not speak much English and our Spanish was also very limited we managed quite well together. Any time an intractable language problem arose Osiris would get on the mobile ’phone to Miguel who would then translate. Worked like a charm!
Day 12 (Mar. 01):
Breakfast is provided with the room, but not until 08:00 (actually arriving nearly half an hour later than that), not so good for birders wishing to get to the Botanical Gardens. After a 20 minute drive we arrived there at 09:15 and set off down the paved pathway to la Canada (Canata?) where Miguel said we would have the best chance for the whistling-duck. Surely this is one of the best big city birding spots in the world, with sizeable areas of native forest interspersed with smaller sections of more manicured plantings. An impressive number of the Hispaniolan and Caribbean specialty birds can be seen right here. In less than three hours and with only a half-hearted effort we noted: Least Grebe, Mangrove Cuckoo, Antillean Palm-Swift, Antillean Mango, Vervain Hummingbird, Broad-billed Tody, Hispaniolan Woodpecker, Hispaniolan Pewee, Palmchat (nesting), Red-legged Thrush, Black-whiskered Vireo and Black-crowned Palm-Tanager. Eventually I caught sight of two exquisite West Indian Whistling-Ducks perched beside the stream just below the pathway. Obviously these birds were used to people but they were not nearly as tame as, for example, Mallards or Canada geese in parks at home. They watched us carefully when we stopped, gradually relaxing again, preening, even copulating. Just stunning ducks (well, waterfowl are my favorite group so I need a bit of slack here) that we watched in the scope and photographed for 10-15 minutes before something startled them and they flew off, wings whistling.
We did a bit of shopping during the afternoon then drove west from our hotel to the ritzy Hotel Embajador to see the nightly roosting spectacle of Hispaniolan Parakeets (Pericos). They gather in increasing numbers in trees surrounding the front parking lot a half hour or so before dusk, some getting a last snack in the fruiting trees, others allopreening with their mates or bickering with neighbors, but all chattering away at the top of their lungs. The racket actually made it hard to hear anything else. Small groups congregated on exposed perches directly overhead making perfect scope and photo studies. An officious security guard chased us out after a bit in a show of petty authority but Osiris marched into the hotel and promptly got this reversed. Certainly a gala performance that should not be missed. I’ve read that there are thought to be about 200 birds. Numbers are hard to estimate in all the comings and goings but I would not be surprised if actually there were close to twice that total.
Day 13 (Mar. 02):
Our plan was to go back early to the Botanical Gardens for some more relaxed birding since our departure was not until early evening. But it was not to be. First, when we looked out of the hotel entrance we found the city in a downpour, and showers persisted off and on nearly all morning. Second, Osiris had just discovered that both side mirrors on the Explorer had been vandalized during the night, pried off then abandoned in the street. So the rest of the morning and early afternoon was basically taken up with this. Eventually Osiris went off to the police station to get an “accident” report, where he had to make a 500 peso contribution in order to get a one page form processed quickly, but which actually took close to 3 hours. We left for the airport early where Candy made some telephone calls regarding the insurance. Beware those ’phone banks along the walls with tempting direct service to the country you want to call. That’s what she used and it ended up costing almost $10 per minute! The rental company handled the issue in a standard professional manner. From that point until we arrived home things went like clockwork.
Undoubtedly it was a very successful trip and we would like to sincerely thank Miguel and Osiris for showing us the birds, for looking after us so well and for the good time in general.