2013 Tour Narrative
In Brief: This year’s WINGS tour to the Dominican Republic was a great success. We managed to encounter all of the 30 possible endemic species in the Dominican Republic and most of the distinctive subspecies that may be split in the future. Beyond the endemics though we found a host of birds restricted to islands in the Caribbean, in a surprising variety of habitats. The Caribbean may not hold the same diversity of species as a trip to the mainland tropics, but what these islands lack in number of species they more than make up for in quality. This year we managed fine views of some stunning and unique birds. Palmchats, the sole member of the family Dulidae, were common throughout the Dominican Republic, and Todies (the consensus “best” birds of the trip) were daily companions. From the arid cactus-clad forests of the southwest to the lush broadleaf forests of the high sierra and Los Haitises National Park it seemed as if a journey of a couple hours was always able to bring us to another world. The island supports a wealth of highly colorful birds, and we were entranced this year by birds such as a pair of gaudy Hispaniolan Trogons perched in the dawn light, a dazzling White-fronted Quail-Dove along a forested creek, an elegant La Selle Thrush foraging near its namesake sign along the Haitian border, a quietly perched Ashy-faced Owl, and the seemingly omnipresent and snazzy Hispaniolan Woodpeckers. Add to this the friendly atmosphere, excellent accommodations, and varied and tasty cuisine and it truly makes for a memorable and enjoyable holiday!
In Full: Our first evening in the Dominican Republic started with a bang, as we enjoyed excellent close-range views of swarms of the endemic Hispaniolan Parakeet settling into a communal roost site in Santo Domingo. The next day we ventured to the beautiful botanical gardens on the north side of the city where the garden’s lush plantings and surprisingly wild streamside vegetation allowed us to quickly become acquainted with some of the more common birds in the country. Palmchats were seemingly everywhere. We were also treated by fine views of the incredible and remarkably abundant Hispaniolan Woodpecker, replete in gold, black and red. Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoos lurked in mistletoe clumps or in the denser foliage of the canopy, but several individuals were also seen in the open, galloping over an open lawn like colorful roadrunners and showing off their buff and gray underparts, red irides and exceedingly long bills. We also appreciated a nice pair of Black-crowned Palm-Tanagers and unbeatable views of at least ten West Indian Whistling-Ducks. Tiny Vervain Hummingbirds were perched high up on open perches at several locations during our walk, looking positively miniscule perched on the exposed stalks of Royal Palm trees. The colorful and much larger Antillean Mangos were also in evidence foraging in some of the ornamental flowers and hawking for insects over the trail. And how can I forget to mention the mixed warbler flocks, containing American Redstarts, Prairie, Black-and-White Warblers, and Northern Parula? Along the creek lurked foraging Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers and a couple of Northern Waterthrush. After lunch and some grocery shopping we then made the three and a half hour drive to Barahona in the Southwest corner of the country; our base for the next four days of the tour.
On the second day we drove inland from Barahona along the Enriquillo Valley and uphill to the small farming community of Puerto Escondido. Our picnic breakfast along a rushing creek was interrupted by Broad-billed Tody, Stolid Flycatcher, Nutmeg Mannikins and Louisiana Waterthush, although I suspect that no one minded!
Further up the road we stopped to check out an abnormally large waterfall along the generally arid roadside. Around the falls was a nice patch of humid forest, with a few flowering Agaves for color. Here we located our first Greater Antillean Bullfinch, and had excellent views of Yellow-faced Grassquit and Hispaniolan Woodpeckers. We then spent an enjoyable morning walking along a humid creek, surrounded by large fruiting trees and dense scrub over a limestone karst understory. Here we encountered repeated views of agitated Broad-billed Todies flashing their pink flank patches as well as a few of their Narrow-billed cousins. Likely due to the large amount of fruit present along the creek this year we encountered about a dozen Hispaniolan Parrots, as well as both Hispaniolan Parakeet and Olive-throated Parakeet perching up in emergent trees. Hispaniolan Orioles were much in evidence, and Palmchats were seemingly everywhere. The crystal clear creek held a few Common Gallinule and Least Grebe, while careful scrutiny of denser patches of vines revealed a fantastically cooperative Flat-billed Vireo and Green-tailed Warbler. A perky Hispaniolan Pewee flew in over our heads and then spent the next few minutes switching perches and quivering its tail. Nearby we encountered the odd White-necked Crow, a Hispaniola endemic with an amazing variety of vocalizations, many of which are in no way crow-like. Migrants were plentiful in the woods, with American Redstarts, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-White, and Prairie Warblers livening up the walk. In amongst a large flock of foraging Palmchat we picked out a small group of Antillean Siskins quietly picking berries out of a dense canopy. These birds are more typical of the higher elevation pine forests, but likely they descended to the lower valleys to partake of the fruit. We then headed down to Lago Enriquillo, where the contrast between the mesic foothill forest and the xeric scrub around the lake was startling and really helped to drive home the diversity of habitats that the island of Hispaniola has to offer. I was surprised by how much larger the lake has become in the past few years. In some places the lake has obviously crossed the road, necessitating substantial road improvements to prevent complete submersion. We found a few Caribbean Coots, a wealth of wading birds including Glossy Ibis, plus Pied-billed Grebe, Laughing Gull, Royal Tern, Belted Kingfisher and Osprey along the lakeshore en route to our birding site the west of Duverge. A smaller lake here held some easily accessible reed beds, where several Common Yellowthroat were heard chucking away and a surprising number of Yellow-rumped Warblers were coming in to bathe. Down a small dirt road and surrounded by tree cactus, acacia scrub and open grassland we located several dapper Plain Pigeons (who are anything but) and our main quarry for the afternoon; three vocal and close Palm Crows.
A very early start on day three enabled us to reach the highlands of the Sierra de Barahuco before dawn. Along the slow and rough ride up we were treated to several Burrowing Owl, views of a calling Least Pauraque and a pair of uncooperative Ashy-faced Owls that stayed just far away enough that we could not see them. We arrived at a patch of montane deciduous forest along the Haitian border at dawn. Within minutes of our arrival a beautiful LaSelle’s Thrush came hopping out into the road, lingering long enough for the group to marvel at its striking plumage. A picnic breakfast followed, accompanied by our first singing Rufous-throated Solitaires, whose eerie call somewhat resembles rubbing a finger on a wet crystal glass. A wonderful bird-rich two hours then followed as we explored the road that passes through patches of dense broadleaf forest, laden with tree ferns, mosses and lichens and flowering bromeliads. In some fruiting trees near to our breakfast sight we located several colorful Hispaniolan Spindalis, trying to snatch fruits from under the watchful eye of the solitaires. Here too were singing Black-faced Grassquit, a responsive Antillean Piculet, and a couple of Antillean Siskins and Antillean Euphonias. Just a little down the road we had a truly memorable encounter with a pair of Western Chat-Tanagers, a highland endemic that can often be frustrating to see well. This particular pair came up to eye level in some fairly open trees, calling and moving around us for nearly five minutes! The skies above us held pairs of Hispaniolan Parrots, small groups of large Scaly-naped Pigeons and, at one point, a Sharp-shinned Hawk being chased by a flock of Golden Swallows. We then headed further up the mountain to the open pine forests where we soon connected with some very vocal Hispaniolan Crossbills. A nice surprise was furnished at the newly enlarged forest service cabin near the remnant patch of broad-leafed forest (which hopefully means that the Dominican Republic government is becoming more serious about protecting this irreplaceable site) by a very tame pair of the unique looking and very colorful Hispaniolan Trogons, which fed unconcernedly above us for a half hour. Also here was a completely surprising Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, quite a scarce species in the Dominican Republic. The deforestation caused by the influx of Hatians continues but several large blocks of habitat appeared happily undamaged. On the way back down we briefly walked across the border into Haiti and picked up a nice tally of 7 species while enjoying a picnic lunch on the border. We arrived back at the hotel with a little time to spare before dinner and a well-deserved rest.
The next day we elected to explore the extreme southwestern corner of the island and the southern slopes of the Sierra de Barahuco. We started out with a picnic breakfast overlooking the large Laguna Oviedo, where, in addition to coffee and oatmeal, we managed to spot some distant American Flamingos, track down a calling Golden Yellow Warbler in the nearby mangroves and see our first Greater Yellowlegs. Next it was on to the gorgeous beaches and headlands of Cabo Rojo, a nice mix of heady white sand beaches, limestone cliffs and small marshes. In the reed-filled main pond were several foraging Reddish (whitish) Egrets, two obliging Clapper Rails, a furtive Least Bittern and a nice selection of waders including a pair of dapper Wilson’s Plovers. Once we arrived at the impossibly azure waters of Bahia de Aquila we were thrilled to find almost a dozen White-tailed Tropicbirds coursing through the skies. Several birds were even seen conducting their tandem courtship flights just offshore. Also here was a flyby Peregrine Falcon and a few foraging Brown Boobies. We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the idyllic surroundings to head inland and uphill on an abandoned but remarkably good paved road, originally built by a Canadian mining company seeking bauxite snakes up into the mountains from the coastal highway. The road allows us easy access to higher elevation pine forests. The open pine forests at the top of the sierra seem reminiscent of the southeastern U.S. pine forests, except that the pines are littered with bromeliads and the ground covered in mosses and ferns with the sounds of parrots ring in the distance. We spent the rest of the morning at elevation, and had good success with Golden Swallows circling below us as they foraged around the abandoned mine site. Other new species included several beautiful Cape May Warblers, about a dozen White-collared Swifts, and a pair of the local Loggerhead Kingbirds, whose voice and appearance clearly support the recent recommendation that they be split from the current Loggerhead Kingbird complex. We then headed back to Barahona for a siesta and an early dinner so that we could make another attempt at locating nightbirds after dusk. The nighttime outing included an atmospheric walk along a humid forested creek, with many calling Least Pauraques.
Our final full day in the country’s remarkable southwest corner is generally used to catch up with any of the endemics that we might have missed. To that end we headed back up to Puerto Escondido and the wonderful Rabo de Gato trail to seek out two of the toughest endemics on the island, the jewel-like White-fronted Quail-Dove and the enigmatic wraith of the forest; Bay-breasted Cuckoo. By carefully scrutinizing the understory along the trail, and checking behind every limestone karst outcrop and fallen tree stump we eventually managed repeated views of White-fronted Quail-Dove. These relatively small and beautifully patterned doves are surprisingly cryptic against the masses of dead leaves that coat the forest floor, but their white forecrowns shone like beacons from the gloom. The forest was filled with the sounds of calling Narrow-billed and Broad-billed Todies, Black-whiskered Vireos, and chattering Palmchats. Also present were foraging Antillean Siskins, female Hispaniolan Emeralds feeding on understory flowers, and small mixed flocks of wintering warblers. We then headed further down the road to a dry gully with large emergent trees and, with the local expertise of our co-leader, parked next to an active territory of Bay-breasted Cuckoos. This large and surprisingly colorful cuckoo is likely the rarest of the endemic bird species in the Dominican Republic. Not much is known about the ecology of the species, and recent surveys have indicated that perhaps as few as 300 pairs persist in the country. The birds seem to have large territories and are likely heavily impacted by forest fragmentation and the removal of the larger diameter trees laden with epiphytic growth that is occurring over much of the country. As we parked, one participant saw a cuckoo flying across the dry river bed and within a minute of playing tape we had a strong vocal response from a Bay-breasted Cuckoo. We waited and scanned the nearby trees, and soon found the calling bird buried deeply in an emergent tree canopy. It dropped into the open, but was annoyingly facing away from us. Nevertheless, the flank pattern, broad slate-colored back and uppertail, and large size were immediately apparent. We watched it moving around for a minute or two and marveled at its strange goat-like calls before the bird moved further back into the brush, never to reappear. All in all it was a great mornings birding, with two of the toughest endemics on the island showing well. An early dinner was followed by an evening excursion up a nearby road where we located a cooperative Chuck-Will’s Widow perching on a roadside snag. An optional walk up a somewhat steep forested trail was a resounding success, with a cooperative Northern Potoo (of the very distinctive local endemic subspecies) flying in to visit with the group for several minutes at very close range. Like several other endemic subspecies this is an excellent candidate for full species status, so perhaps a few years from now we’ll be able to add an armchair tick from the comforts of home.
Our last morning in Barahona found us driving up into the eastern side of the Barahuco Mountains. Just before dawn we lucked into a brief encounter with an Ashy-faced Owl feeding along the road. A little later, upon arriving at the appropriate elevation we heard a singing Eastern Chat-Tanager before even exiting the cars! We waited for a few minutes for the sun to illuminate the hedgerow and were soon rewarded with lengthy views of the bird both perched in the open and flying over our heads. The browner back coloration, eyering, and more compact build (in relation to their Western cousins) were noticeable. We then enjoyed a picnic breakfast accompanied by a quick tire change and headed back to the hotel in Barahona to start the drive to the northeast of the country. Unfortunately we were significantly delayed by a faulty transmission, so we did not commence the drive to Los Haitises until the early afternoon. The drive is fairly long but scenic, traversing a dramatically different and more tropical feeling countryside, with sugar cane fields, meandering streams, riparian hardwood forests and lush roadside vegetation. We arrived at our hotel in time for a late buffet dinner and a well-deserved rest (with a quick detour to spotlight a calling Barn Owl.)
Our hotel, perched on the eastern edge of the large Parque National de Los Haitises, resembles a 10 year-old’s fantasy tree-house, complete with lots of rockwork, leaves cemented into the plaster, tall ceilings with wooden beams, loft beds, indoor balconies and winding stairs, all with a stream running through the bottom floor! A few of us met early the next morning for a successful quest for more views of Ashy-faced Owl, which are relatively common around the park margins. After about a half hour of searching we located a calling bird perched in a Royal Palm not too far off the road. Soon after dawn (and at a somewhat leisurely pace) we wandered down the trail adjacent to our lodge. Within just a few minutes we found ourselves below an isolated palm tree in a small agricultural clearing, surrounded by steep sided limestone karst hills. Here an incubating Ridgway’s Hawk kept us entertained for over a half-hour. This is perhaps the rarest species of raptor in the world, and to see one so easily, and in such obviously altered habitat is heartening. Perhaps this indicates hope for the species in the long term. Los Haitises National Park is the last remaining stronghold for the species in the world, and it is estimated that in the nearly 1000 square kilometer park there are roughly 140 pairs remaining. There has been large scale clearing for agriculture in this area for a decade, but the park guards are vigorously trying to educate the farmers and protect the valuable nest trees that remain. After an elated celebration we elected to continue along the trail for a few more minutes and were rewarded with several Hispaniolan Orioles, huge numbers of nesting Palmchats, a few raucous White-necked Crows, Hispaniolan Woodpeckers and a foraging Limpkin. After a full breakfast we took an hour and a half boat ride through coastal mangrove forests, around several small forested islets along the coastline, and then briefly out into the bay. The mangroves held hordes of Little Blue Herons and a few passerines, but the tide was high and there was no exposed shoreline this year. One of the small limestone islets, with steep edges dropping into the sea, was acting as a breeding site for several Magnificent Frigatebirds. In a small cave just above the waterline, several dozen Cave Swallows were also nesting. Touring around by boat was a wonderful change of pace, and allowed us to see a different side of this varied island. We made two short forays into the park trails, walking into isolated valleys with huge mangrove trees and mixed hardwoods. On one of these paths we flushed almost a dozen Ruddy Quail-Doves, and marveled at the hidden nature of the habitat. On the other we tried our hand at a bit of caving, walking into a short matrix of twisted limestone caverns for eye-level views of breeding Cave Swallows, a few bats and some Taino cave sculptures. After lunch we headed back towards Santo Domingo with a last stop near Monte Plata where at a small marsh (previously located by our local leader Miguel) we managed to locate a Spotted Rail foraging in the open amidst numbers of Purple and Common Gallinule, Limpkin and Northern Jacana. A completely unexpected bonus for the end of a wonderful tour through the Dominican Republic!
Updated: April 2013