I always seem to be reading trip reports from people who are lucky enough to either go with a group of like minded birders or whose spouse is a birder. I would like to present an account of a trip to the Dominican Republic where birdwatching was, of necessity, of secondary importance. "What possible reason could this chap have for placing birdwatching secondary in importance?" I hear you ask. The answer is it was our honeymoon and my wife has no interest in birds and I didn't want our marriage to get off on the wrong foot. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it?
We got married on May 10th 1997 and, after a break to get over hangovers and to open presents, left for the Dominican Republic on May 14th. The flight there stopped off at Bangor,
Maine, USA which provided a chance to stretch our legs, drink some appalling coffee and for me to surreptitiously watch birds. Although hardly a spectacular list for one hour (four species) two of them were new to me. In addition to the ubiquitous starlings and house sparrows, one or two mourning doves and a single American crow were within sight of the terminal, as was a solitary gopher, tunnelling under the boundary fence!
We arrived in the Dominican Republic about four hours later in the middle of the night. The first thing that struck us was the heat and the humidity which, after getting off an air conditioned jet was quite staggering. A short coach ride and struggle with our luggage later and we were in our chalet and asleep in a resort just east of Cabarete on the Atlantic coast.
Due to a disturbed body clock and suppressed excitement I was up early. It was a beautiful sunny morning. Time to start listing. Feeling distinctly groggy I pulled on my clothes and left my sleeping wife to take an early morning walk around the holiday complex. Bird wise it was quiet at first, with only a few birds giving tantalising glimpses through the bushes. I turned a corner to head for the pond that I had seen in the brochure and was confronted by a large flycatcher-like bird sitting on top of a tree. Grey Kingbird! I was off the mark. When I see a new bird I always like to study it for a while, but my attempts to do this suffered a serious setback when a hummingbird flew through my field of view. The thought of seeing hummingbirds had never really occurred to me and so I had great difficulty in trying to identify it. Indeed I didn't fully identify it until later in the day when I was able to consult James Bond (for those of you who wonder what the hell I'm talking about, James Bond wrote "The Birds of the West Indies", the field guide I took with me. The Ian Fleming character is named after this gentleman. Apparently he had this book on his desk when he was trying to come up with a name for the super spy.).
After this bit of excitement I walked on to the pond which was situated beside the restaurant. Here I had an absolute gem of a bird and, again, totally unexpected. There, not twenty feet away was a gorgeous Green-backed Heron, sitting motionless on the bottom branches of a tree overhanging the water. I watched it for about ten minutes during which time it moved, confirming that it was unstuffed. After all this excitement I decided it was time to return to our chalet to begin the day as a normal, non-birding human being. Annette, my lovely wife, quickly picked up on my excitement. Sensing that I would be unbearable if I tried to totally avoid birding, she told me to carry my binoculars with me. A triumph for marital harmony. It may also be that she feared the stress of constantly trying not to look at birds may have lead to me having a nervous breakdown which would have spoiled our honeymoon.
Over the next few days we relaxed into a regular routine based around mealtimes (we were on an all inclusive package so all food and drink was free, plentiful and fabulous). We had long romantic walks along the beach to a nearby river outlet, walked into Caberete, the local town and a world famous windsurfing resort, and generally lounged around. We found a spot near to our resorts boundary fence where we sat under a tree during the afternoon. Whilst Annette read and sipped pina colada's I watched birds and knocked back Cuba libra's. This spot provide quite a number of interesting species as it overlooked an area of scrub and palm trees.
We had regular visits from hummingbirds, now identified as Antillean Mango and Vervain Hummingbird, the latter no bigger than a large bumble bee. Small parties of Palmchat (a Hispaniolan endemic) passed by, as did Greater Antillean Grackle and Black-cowled Oriole, a species with striking yellow/orange markings. From here too we had a single brown pelican flying over.
Around the grounds of the resort a number of species were seen on a daily basis. In addition to Grey Kingbird and the two hummingbirds (Antillean Mango being the commonest), Northern Mockingbirds were widespread and common especially in areas where people gathered to eat. The calls of Hispaniolan Woodpeckers (a Hispaniolan endemic) were frequently heard and sightings of this most striking bird, down to close range, almost daily. Another frequently encountered bird was the Bananaquit, a very attractive little bird which patrolled the bushes in a manner very similar to our own goldcrest, i.e. difficult to get your bins on at times. A single female American Kestrel frequented the grounds for much of the time we were there, joined by a male on one occasion.
One or two species put in only rare appearances. Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo (a hispaniolan endemic) was seen and heard on a scrubby patch of ground adjacent to our chalet. This patch also produced Common Ground-dove and Yellow-faced Grassquit, the latter a plain brown finch with canary-yellow markings on its face, just as the name describes.
Each day we walked east along the beach to a place known as Laguna where the Rio Yasica had its outflow. This walk produced a number of species mainly of a marine and wetland variety. Of the shorebirds only four species were seen. A small party of up to four Sanderling were seen on the beach on a number of occasions, as were two Grey Plovers. A pair of Killdeer plovers performed convincing distraction displays whenever we passed by their sand dune nest site and a Willet was at the river mouth for a couple of days. Herons were well represented with Snowy Egret, Great Egret and Cattle Egrets most often seen. In addition to the Green-backed Heron at the resort, one was present at the river mouth. Best of all was the Yellow-crowned Night Heron which we saw flying lazily along the strand line one morning. Seabirds were notable by their absence. The only sighting I had (bearing in mind I was on my honeymoon and long sea watches were out of the question) was of a medium sized tern which when it landed had long orange legs, a stout dark bill with a hint of red in it, a pale grey mantle, some dark feathers in the wings and a black nape and cap which demarcated through the eye. After much thought and consultation with the relevant literature when I returned home, I decided it was a Forster's tern, a species not uncommon in the West Indies.
Looking back into the dunes from the beach also provided some useful sightings such as White-crowned Pigeon, Turkey Vulture, Plain pigeon and Tree Swallow.
We took one excursion during our stay, to the Laguna Gri-Gri. The boat trip from here took us through mangrove swamp, where large numbers of Great Egrets were nesting, out onto the sea. Along the way we saw Red-necked Pigeon, Palmchat (a party of about thirty) and a large number of Turkey Vultures lurking in the trees around the egret colony. At the edge of the mangrove swamp we passed the ruins of what had been a cafe until hurricane Hortense struck in 1996. It was now a pile of breeze blocks surrounded by snapped off palm trees, a reminder of the storms that frequently hit this region.
Passing close in to the low cliffs that formed the coast we were soon joined by three Magnificent Frigatebirds which hung high in the air above us. After a short while the boat turned inshore and headed for a sea cave where, once inside, I was astonished to be amongst a colony of Cave Swallows, a remarkable sight.
The remainder of our stay in the Dominican Republic was extremely pleasurable. An acceptable balance of honeymooning and birdwatching was achieved and we both had a wonderful time. Lounging around the pool or the beach, as well as our veranda provided ample opportunity for birding on the quiet.
On the last days of our stay the weather began to turn cloudy and rainy at times (the rainy season in the Dominican Republic runs from June to October). This brought a few more visitors to the resort in the shape of Tree Swallows, Cave Swallows and, seemingly flying at the speed of sound, Antillean Palm Swifts.
Our departure came at just the right time. Annette had been ill with a stomach upset for two days and was feeling distinctly unwell. She had been in bed for most of this time but insisted that I go out. Being a concerned and loving husband I didn't. After our drive to the airport at Puerto Plata our last sight of the Dominican Republic was of flocks of egrets flying along the coast in the evening light, on their way to roost.
Our flight was delayed by about four hours and Annette got a migraine. On the aeroplane I sat in the same position for four hours while she tried to sleep on my lap. By the time we got home to Northamptonshire some fourteen hours later we were all in, but it was well worth it for a honeymoon that both of us will remember for the rest of our lives, albeit for slightly different reasons.