Commonwealth of Dominica

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The Caribbean’s Best Kept Secret

By Martin Birch

All photos courtesy of Martin Birch

Little more than a speck on the atlas and almost always confused with its larger cousin The Dominican Republic, The Commonwealth of Dominica is, in my mind, the Caribbean’s best kept secret. The island, enveloped in richly preserved rainforest, is the undisputed emerald in a necklace of island gems that stretch from Puerto Rico to the mainland of South America.

The Commonwealth of Dominica, at just 30 miles long, is in fact the largest of the Windward Islands which, together with the more northerly Leeward Islands, constitute the Lesser Antilles.

Excluding the islands of Trinidad and Tobago which by their proximity to the South American mainland have a richer avifauna, the islands of the Lesser Antilles have recorded over 350 species. Dominica itself has recorded less than 200 species, but don’t be dissuaded from visiting by this lack of variety. The species present and the spectacular surroundings in which they reside more than make up for a trip list that will almost certainly fall short of three figures.

Dominica, by virtue of its volcanic ancestry is mountainous with a number of peaks reaching 5,000 feet. These mountains, draped with jungle-thick rainforest, fall steeply into the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean leaving black volcanic sand beaches in their shadow. A myriad rivers and streams cut through the island.

Much of Dominica’s faunal and floral riches are contained within the Morne Trois Pitons National Park – a huge area of mountainous rain-soaked forest and non-existent trails that only local guides can penetrate with certainty. Studded with breathtaking waterfalls that, along with the 365 rivers (one for every day of the year) carry away the eight metres of annual rainfall, the island is a perfect eco-sanctuary for birds and birders.

The forests of Dominica are home to two endemic species of Parrot – the Imperial and the Red-necked. Their endemicity coupled with natural (eg: hurricanes) and man-made (eg: encroachment) disasters means that both species are critically endangered. Said to have numbered millions five centuries ago, there are probably less than one hundred Imperial Parrots left in the world – and not many more Red-necked Parrots.

But with an early morning start, both species can be seen without too much discomfort in and around the Syndicate Estate. The Imperial Parrot is the largest of the Amazona parrots and is a great sight after hours of crawling through rain-soaked forest on the slopes of Morne Diablotin.

A variety of species have made the rainforests their home. Birders will certainly want to see the Trembler – easily identified in the field by its habit of wing trembling – the Rufous-throated Solitaire – heard more than it is seen, the Purple and Green-throated Caribs and the Plumbeous Warbler. Luckily all these are straightforward to find. Other speciality, but harder to find, species include Ruddy Quail-dove, Caribbean Elania, Blue-headed Euphonia, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Pearly-eyed Thrasher and Scaly-naped Pigeon.

Besides the Northern section of the National Park which encompasses Morne Diablotin, other great rainforest trails include the Middleham Trails and the treks to Boiling, Freshwater and Boeri Lakes. Indeed the Middleham Trails are probably the most productive bird-wise, although Imperial Parrots can’t be seen in this part of the island.

Those visiting the Lesser Antilles for the first time will quickly add new ‘lifers’ in the form of the very common Caribbean Grackle (above), Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Lesser Antillean Swift and Antillean Crested Hummingbird (above) along with other Central American species such as the Bananaquit, Mangrove Cuckoo, Streaked Saltator, Tropical Mockingbird and Black-faced Grassquit.

A number of species are restricted to the islands of the Lesser Antilles. The beautiful Blue-headed Hummingbird is restricted to the rainforest and elfin forest (a form of stunted cloud forest confined to the exposed ridges) of Dominica and Martinique and is easily the most stunning of the "hummers" found in Dominica. The Lesser Antillean Pewee is another species confined to just a few islands including Dominica and is relatively easy to see in forest clearings and adjacent plantations. The Forest Thrush is also confined to the Lesser Antilles and whilst considered widely distributed in Dominica, both my visits failed to produce a sighting. The Scaly-breasted Thrasher, yet another Antillean speciality is far simpler to see favouring lowland dry woodland as much as rainforest.

Birders in Britain waiting for the next twitchable Yellow Warbler will wonder why they have had to wait so long once they see the density of the species in Dominica. The Yellow Warbler (above) is the only widespread breeding Dendroica in the Lesser Antilles.

Autumn brings a variety of North American migrants many of which over-winter. The commonest passerines are Black-and-White Warblers, Northern Parula, both Water-thrushes and American Redstart. This Cape May Warbler (above) over-wintered at Roseau Botanical Gardens – 1990

But Dominica is not all forests. Along the coastline, mangroves, lagoons and marshy swamps all attract a variety of species which, during passage, include many visiting North American waders. Most commonly encountered are Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper (right) and Killdeer. A number of kingfisher and heron species make their home here.

On the north-west coast the Cabrits Marine Park encompasses a peninsula joined to the mainland by a marine reserve of mangrove and swamp. This area is one of the best places to see migrating and overwintering "yanks".

At sea, Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Pomarine Skuas and Magnificent Frigatebirds can be seen at any time of the year. Look for the Frigatebirds drifting high above the harbour front at Roseau. In summer White-tailed Tropic birds breed on the cliffs just south of Roseau.

One of the most exciting recent finds is the likely breeding of the Black-capped Petrel on Dominica. A nocturnal breeding species, there is probably a small colony in one or more of the steep ravines at the southern tip of the island. That said, birders are more likely to encounter this enigmatic ‘pterodroma’ on a pelagic off the North Carolina coast than in or around its breeding grounds !

In summary, Dominica is a great birding destination with a whole host of other delights for the eco-traveller. The island is safe, relaxed and friendly, just remember to bring walking boots and a get-wet mentality. Don’t expect a huge leap in your world list but do expect to be re-invigorated by your encounter with the living world.

Key sites and sightings from visits in December 1990 and January 1994

Lesser Antillean Pewee by Martin Birch

Roseau Harbour-front and Botanical Gardens

Magnificent Frigatebird, Cattle Egret, Green-backed Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Broad-winged Hawk, American Kestrel, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Pomarine Skua, Royal Tern, Xenaida Dove, Scaly Ground-dove, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Green-throated Carib, Purple-throated Carib, Antillean-crested Hummingbird, Ringed Kingfisher, Caribbean Elania, Lesser Antillean Pewee, Gray Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Sand Martin, House Wren, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Tropical Mockingbird, Yellow Warbler, Parula Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Plumbeous Warbler, Bananaquit, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Black-faced Grassquit, Carib Grackle,

Scotts Head and Sulphar Springs , Soufriere

Brown Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Green-backed Heron, Broad-winged Hawk, Merlin, Barn Swallow, Lesser Antillean Swift, Purple-throated Carib, Caribbean Elania, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Lesser Antillean Pewee, Gray Kingbird, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-whiskered Vireo, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Xenaida Dove, House Wren,

Morne Rouge Estate, nr Soufriere

Green-backed Heron, Merlin, Broad-winged Hawk, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Green-throated Carib, Antillean-crested Hummingbird, Blue-hooded Euphonia, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Plumbeous Warbler, Black-whiskered Vireo, Bananaquit, Gray Kingbird, Caribbean Elania, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Black-faced Grasquit, House Wren, Scaly Ground-dove, Xenaida Dove, Streaked Saltator,

Freshwater and Boeri Lakes

Broad-winged Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Spotted Sandpiper, Purple-throated Carib, Antillean-crested Hummingbird, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Pearly, eyed Thrasher, Gray Kingbird, Caribbean Elania, Green-throated Carib, Purple-throated Carib, Blue-headed Hummingbird, Antillean-crested Hummingbird, Yellow Warbler, Plumbeous Warbler, Black-whiskered Vireo, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Streaked Saltator,

Morne Anglais

Blue-headed Hummingbird, Red-necked Pigeon, Yellow Warbler, Plumbeous Warbler, Caribbean Elania, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Gray Kingbird,

Middleham Falls

Green-backed Heron, Broad-winged Hawk, Lesser Antillean Swift, Red-necked Parrot, Smooth-billed Ani, Purple-throated Carib, Blue-headed Hummingbird, Antillean-crested Hummingbird, Trembler, Caribbean Elania, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Gray Kingbird, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Plumbeous Warbler, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch,

Indian River

Little Blue Heron, Green-backed Heron, Brown Pelican (offshore) Osprey, Broad-winged Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper, Trembler, Mangrove Cuckooo, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Lesser Antillean Pewee, Royal Tern (offshore)

Emerald Pool

Broad-winged Hawk, Mangrove Cuckoo, Lesser Antillean Swift, Purple-throated Carib, Green-throated Carib, Trembler, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Streaked Saltator, Yellow Warbler, Plumbeous Warbler, Caribbean Elania, Gray Kingbird,

Syndicate Estate, Morne Diablotin

Broad-winged Hawk, Lesser Antillean Swift, Purple-throated Carib, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Trembler, Imperial Parrot, Red-necked Parrot, Lesser Antillean Pewee, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch,

Portsmouth and the Cabrits

Brown Booby, Pomarine Skua, Royal Tern, Great White Egret, Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Grren-backed Heron, American Kestrel, Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Spotted Sandpiper, Mangrove Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Carib Grackle, Northern Water-thrush, Yellow Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Caribbean Elania

Pagua Bay

Osprey, Spotted Sandpiper, Smooth-billed Ani

Melville Hall

Greater Yellowlegs, Cattle Egret