This report including images is also available at Pat’s blog
In March I finally made it to the tallest of the Greater Antilles. Ed Mockford and I went there for ISU Spring break 2006! No, we visited nary a white sand beach. No, we did not lounge around a pool under cloud flecked blue skies at some all-inclusive Caribbean resort. What we did end up doing was hang out with Palmchats, get acquainted with Todies, stay at an exploding door hotel and probably saw a darned Masked Duck.
Ed is a retired 76 year old prof from ISU who still works every day because he loves hypothesizing about evolutionary relationships of the always overlooked yet ever present insect order Psocoptera! These are tiny things known as book and bark lice. Ed had actually visited the Dominican Republic (DR) once before back in the 50s to collect Pscopterans. He went with this interesting fellow by the name of Nadler. Nadler, an accountant from NYC who was crazy about bark-lice, was probably one of the only amateur Psocopteran enthusiasts in the world then and now. According to Ed, he would collect Psocids anywhere he pleased such as in botanical gardens, roadside banana plants, etc. When Ed and Nadler visited the DR in the 1950s, instead of leather jackets, hair grease and bobby socks, the DR had citizens generally frightened by a guy named Trujillo who was in charge of and owned most everything. Once, Nadler was picked up and questioned by Trujillo’s secret police. No doubt they were curious about his odd behavior (hitting dead vegetation with a stick to catch the detritus and bark lice that fell into his umbrella). Luckily for Nadler, they released him shortly thereafter instead of torturing him for collecting Psocids. As for Ed, he was more careful about where he collected, therefore avoiding contact with Trujillo’s police. Besides loving what he does, I think Ed also feels somewhat obligated to work as much as possible because he is one of the world’s foremost experts on this order of insects during a period of time when naturalists have been steadily replaced by reductionists at university after university. Ed is also a birder who has been all over the world yet still needs to see many birds! Recently he mentioned that he was in Guatemala once but didn't get any birding in. Why? Because he was busy doing something that hardly anyone else does: collecting Psocids. On this trip, he got in some collecting but also thankfully saw quite a few new birds.
Before continuing on, please realize that this is a pseudo trip report. Although I have included some information that could help you in planning a trip to the DR, it mostly deals with my impressions and musings about the country, birding there, etc. Nevertheless, I hope you do read my report and that it inspires you to visit the DR. I would recommend the place to any birder and hope to go back someday. Many thanks to individuals who wrote the following trip reports and websites that were very useful:
All trip reports utilized can be found on Surfbirds
and/or Travelling birder.com http://www.travellingbirder.com/tripreports/default.php
also see this website covering sites in the DR: http://www.geocities.com/birdsofhispaniola/
I used trip reports by: Dave Klauber, Joe Thompson, Guy Poisson et Diane Thibeault (in French)
Here is a bit of useful information when planning a trip to the DR:
Transportation: Public is cheap and will give you a big dose of local culture but won’t get you to the best sites. We rented a Montero from Ace rent a car for $300.00 for one week. This worked out fine although there were times when a vehicle with higher clearance would have been preferable.
Money and costs: Peso about 50 for a dollar. Changed money at the airport upon arrival and then withdrew from ATMs along highway near Santo Domingo. Ed used credit card at Hotel Caribe.
Most hotels costed $30-$40 for a double, meals in hotels averaged $8 for dinner. Meals outside hotels much cheaper and still very good.
Food: Very good everywhere- some of the best I’ve had anywhere in Latin America. Try the “Mofongo” if not because it’s tasty then because the name sounds provocative. Seafood was wonderful.
The trip report:
First and foremost, before any talk of driving conditions, birding ups and downs and hotels with exploding doors, I feel obliged to talk about the bird that is most unique to the DR: the one and only Palmchat!
Hispaniola has an endemic family, Dulidae. The only member of the family is the one and only Palmchat!! Palmchat is a pretty appropriate name for this Thraupid-like, Sturnid-like guy. They appear to be crazy about palms with all that constant massive nest building going on and they are also quite chatty as well. These streaky guys have quite a repertoire of wheezy, sneezy and greazy (yes thats right greazy) call notes. Although Palmchat is appropriate I suspect that they prefer to be called any number of variations of their family name Dulidae such as "Duli" or "Dulid" or "Dulazo" for the big ones or "Dulmeister" for those self-deemed to be "hip" (tragically so I'm afraid), or perhaps "Dulito" for the petit but never under any circumstances "Dullard". If you make the mistake of calling a Palmchat "dullard" do not be surprised if they get vindictive and weave you into some long forgotten nest full of scorpions and spiders (but not cockroaches- I didn't notice any!). Palmchats are fun to watch because there is always at least one in the vicinity carrying some oversized stick around to upkeep an oversized nest. Oh, yes, Palmchats are just about everywhere in the DR. Since they have such character and are endemic to the island they will never be trash but sometimes they push it with their abundance and bold ways. You will see them in Santo Domingo, and almost everywhere else where there are palm trees. Long live the Palmchat!
Even though you can watch Dulids as much as you please in the D.R., there are other birds that must be seen which are unfortunately much more difficult to twitch than Palmchats.
To experience these other avian delights, we visited Los Haitises National Park near Sabana de la Mar in the north and then concentrated on La Sierra de Barohuco in the southwest.
Most birders visiting the DR either get a rental or hire a driver. There is public transport but without unlimited time, it would be near impossible to get to the best sites (which are just about necessary to see the endemics). If you can afford hiring a driver and guide, I strongly recommend this as driving conditions were pretty haphazard, signs in towns often misleading, and some bird species quite local. Despite having good gen. about sites and being fluent in Spanish, we lost birding time and got pretty worn out by driving ourselves and missed at least a few birds because of birding sans guide. NEVERTHELESS, it was a good time overall with lifers, new families and lots of salsa on the radio (huepa!). For those of you not familiar with the musical genres known as salsa and merengue, "huepa" is sort of like a Caribbean flavored "yee-haw!" associated with said music. As for Palmchats I think the word should also be associated with them.
And yes, as other trip reports have indicated, high clearance and 4-wheel drive is absolutely imperative for the Sierra de Bahoruco sites.
First full day:
We picked up the rental, a Montero (small SUV) from ACE rentacar. The location of this agency is perfect as it allows the driver to skirt the chaos of Santo Domingo. Despite this advantage, instead of sticking to the coastal road, I made the error of believing in our road map and we ended up squarely downtown in one of those uncomfortable situations where better, more relaxed times are recalled and wished for in earnest. Like an over-curious fly that doesn’t understand how it became seemingly inexplicably entangled after merely touching the edge of a spider web, there we were inching through the old streets of colonial Santo Domingo. In this case colonial doesn’t mean “quaint” or “what charming architecture”. No, when you are a birder driving a rental vehicle, it means “I hope we are going down this street in the right direction- towards bird habitat”, “where are the stop lights and stop signs”, and “I hope we can fit down this street”. On foot it would have been pleasant and full of historical facts but in our newly rented Montero it was one of those molasses stressful times in life when you know that you will absolutely appreciate carefree moments in the near future if you can just somehow survive until then. Easier times where busy intersections have stop lights that function, where cars utilize orderly lanes and random donkey carts are NOT meandering through traffic. This report is testament to the fact that we did make it and HOLY SMOKES I STILL FEEL RELIEVED AND HAPPY THAT I AM NOT BACK THERE LOST IN SANTO DOMINGO LETTING THE FORCE GUIDE US THROUGH TOWN. Not being a trained Jedi, I typically prefer not to rely upon the force to drive in any situation much less a crowded city. Local driving rules, however, necessitated use of The Force on the busiest streets because the rules were essentially do whatever you please/stick with the flock/play loud music/try not to crash. Just follow those other cars at that busy intersection, there's safety in them there numbers! Don't be concerned about lack of stop lights or signs. Pretend you are in a mixed flock. In this we were able to utilize our birding skills and luckily The Force of the mixed flock safely guided us back to the road along the shore (nice because other cars can turn onto it from one direction only) which eventually turned into a highway and carried us east and then north towards Sabana de la Mar. The highway was pretty good for the most part (and extremely appreciated after Santo Domingo). Oh what joy to zoom along under the Caribbean sun (somehow different than say a Mexican sol or Greek helos). We saw few birds driving through the endless sugar cane fields and scrubby habitat but were thrilled anyways with the possibilities awaiting us at our destination, the last sizeable chunk of lowland rain forest left in the country. Along the way, we became lost in most towns because signs were misleading. Locals were helpful though (and accurate!) with directions. There were probably Thick-Knees and Tyto Owl species along the way hiding out there in the fields and palm plantations but there were few to none places where we could get off the road and bird. Same case when traversing the hills just before reaching Sabana de la Mar. Had to be careful on curves here to avoid the occasional coconut laden truck taking up both lanes as it raced to the nearest baseball game or merengue festival. So, we couldn’t really stop and bird here either despite there being a bit of promising habitat in shade coffee plantations. I wouldn't be surprised if we passed a few skulking Eastern Chat-Tanagers as we warily made our way north.
The driver must also be prepared for the unexpected in towns as well. At least we were larger than the many motorcycles zipping around like flies and therefore had the right of way but on one occasion we ran into a bit of road work that appeared to be in stasis. The two-lane principle road into town was temporarily transformed into a fairly long stretch of one-lane road. Our binoculars came in handy here in gauging whether or not we could make it through before some bus decided to play chicken. Happily, no vehicular Jungle Fowl playing for us on the way to Sabana de la Mar nor on the way back a few days later when we fortunately had the advantage of a brazen truck running clearance for us.
At Sabana de la Mar, once again we could not find the road we needed despite supposed signs. We ended up hiring a guy on a motorcycle to lead us to Cano Hondo. Apparently the road there is the first on the left just after entering town. There is an inconspicuous sign (it might be partially hidden by some leafy tree). Cano Hondo is the place to stay when visiting Los Haitises. Not only is this the closest ecolodge to Los Haitises but also might be some of the only quality lodging around (and arguably the best for birding). It’s a good idea to make reservations here on the weekends; we didn't and were fortunate to get the last available room. Lodging costed $30-$40 for a double, excellent buffet breakfast included. Other meals were reasonably priced and very good, service pretty slow. Music was also included at all meal times ranging from elevatorish at breakfast to Marc Anthony salsa at lunch and dinner. Speaker volume was pleasant though and downright wonderful compared to most roadside cafes that blare dangerously loud bachata and merengue into the hot streets of their respective towns and villages throughout the DR. Although I could wax on and on about "Escapemonos" by Marc Anthony and J-Lo, that didn't quite measure up to best thing about the outdoor restaurant; tame yet wild and countable White-necked Crows! White-necked Crops are not a typical Crow (lets face it Corvidophiles; rather trashy). First off, they look more like a Raven with that over-sized beak. Secondly, they have glassy red eyes. Thirdly, they are an endemic that has become quite rare and indisputably they sound like parrots and behave like oropendolas! These things are nuts. If you have ever witnessed the exaggerated display of a Montezuma or Crested Oropendola, then you know what I am talking about. If not, imagine a Crow-sized bird having a seizure both in body and voice yet is able to maintain its grasp on its perch. Tropical behavioral madness oh yeah! Did I mention they are also rare? Yes, we only saw White-necked Crows at Cano Hondo and in the vicinity of Los Haitises and not that many either.
Near Cano Hondo, one can easily see why there aren’t so many crazy White-necked Crows around; instead of forest, there is lots of cattle habitat. Tall remnant trees with buttressed roots left standing naked in grassy fields. Just like in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica, they seem to be in shock at having their trunks so exposed. If they had voices they would scream. I have a voice yet keep the scream inside; transforming the energy into work that might clothe those shocked tress with forest once again.
Cano Hondo has much pasture nearby but also has patchy forest with fair birding. A trail also leads to better forest with Ridgway’s Hawk about 1-2 hours walk from the lodge. We didn't know this until the day we left but the owner can arrange trips to see it. He is also a conservationist and very concerned about living sustainably in the DR. He is just the type of person that merits the support of visiting birders. Since we didn't know this until the day we left we ended up hiring a boat driver to take us to the park to look for Ridgway’s Hawk on our own. The boat dock and entrance to Los Haitises is an easy one k. walk from Cano Hondo. We hired boat and driver to take us to the park (only accessible by sea) for $60 or so for 3-4 hours. The best place to see the Hawk is a spot called Los Naranjos although one of us got a brief look at one on the forest trail we visited. The trip starts in mangroves (where we saw almost nothing) before reaching the bay (where we saw little) and then visiting sheltered beaches and trails (where we saw lots). The forested trail we took was beautiful. Old growth trees, Broad-billed Todies calling everywhere, this was wonderful forest. The most common birds were wintering Warblers. We flushed a few Ruddy Quail-Doves, had small groups of Black-crowned Palm-Tanagers and one brief look at a definite Ridgeway’s Hawk! We had positioned ourselves at a spot with a good portion of the sky visible and for one second, a Ridgeway’s Hawk flew over. That was it. Looked kind of like a Red-shouldered. Didn't see it again. Best bet to see this Red-shoulderish critically endangered bird for longer than we did is to arrange the trip to a nesting pair from Cano Hondo. We also heard the loud infamously ventriloqual song of Antillean Piculet several times but wouldn't see this specialty until later in the trip while birding the best road in the country.
Nevertheless, this image does manage to capture the unreal look of these true to life stuffed animals of the Greater Antilles. Check out the plastic-like bill! These were common in most lower to mid-elevation wooded habitats. Once you learn the song you realize that they are almost everywhere. They give an incessant "brrt, brrt, brrt, etc...". Sounds kind of Tyrranid-like. Yes, there just like some stuffed animal- dumpy little things with emerald green upperparts, magenta throats and red plastic bills; absolutely lovely. There are five species of Todies (possibly 6- Narrow-billed might deserve a split) with 2 found on Hispaniola. Believe it or not, these feathered toys are most closely related to Motmots with Tody Motmot (also stuffed-animal like) possibly being somewhat of a missing link between the two groups. Todies also used to be a lot more widespread in the northern temperate zone several millions of years ago when the north was also a lot hotter. Perhaps members of the family couldn't compete with Motmots and Tyrannids once the temperate zone finished its tropical hiatus. Fortunately these gnomes survived in the Greater Antilles and are also common birds.
Aside from being the best place to stay in the vicinity of Los Haitises, Cano Hondo and Los Haitises were some of the better spots for the following bird species:
Limpkin- typically vocally exuberant; probably extolling the virtues of escargots and wet spots.
Ridgeway’s Hawk- not in the vicinity of the lodge, only in Los Haitises (los naranjos) and 2 hour walk from the lodge.
Ruddy Quail Dove- in Los Haitises.
Cliff Swallow and Caribbean Martin- very common on the boat ride.
Greater Antillean Grackle- pretty common but not nearly as abundant as you would expect compared to other Grackle species in other places!
Greater Antillean Oriole
White-necked Crow- the site for this spectacular Corvid. If you are into bird behavior this thing will blow your socks off.
We also had the following species, most equally common at other sites:
Green Backed Heron
Common Ground Dove
Hisp. Lizard Cuckoo
Antillean Piculet (H)
Antillean Palm Swift
Black-crowned Palm Tanager
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black and white Warbler
Cano Hondo: www.paraisocanohondo.com
phone number: 809-248-5995, 809-696-3710
Southwest: Sierra de Bahoruco
After Cano Hondo, our next stop was our base for the Sierra de Bahoruco; Barahona. Too bad that Barahona is just about at the opposite end of the country and there are no short cuts. The best roads (and therefore most efficient driving time) happen to be the same roads one takes from Santo Domingo which means a fair amount of backtracking sans birding but that’s the way the ball bounces, the way the feathers fly, what I call the birding breaks. It’s actually not that bad because hopefully since you came up the same way, you will be less likely to get lost heading back to Santo Domingo and furthermore, once you get to Santo Domingo, you can pretty much stay on the highway instead of having to take a chance with using the force to deal with dark-side intersections. Don't expect the highway through the city to be some piece of "flan" though. It was pretty crowded for us with a few roundabouts at the western edge that led us somewhat astray. Once again, get the local driver if you can afford it!
Despite there being little chance to bird from the road on the way to S.D. from Cano Hondo, we may have seen a Masked Duck!! A "may have" doesn't count unfortunately but perhaps whomever is reading this will have better luck at the same site with that sneaky little Duck that spends the majority of its time with Rails at waterfowl masquerades in the reeds. Here is a synopsis of our possible Masked Duck: As Ed and I cruised along not too long after descending the hills south of Cano Hondo, we both caught a glimpse of a smallish bird floating in a roadside pond. Neither of us was able to discern shape of the bird enough to say if it was a Least Grebe or Masked Duck although it was certainly one of the two. Despite pulling a u-turn with tires burning up the pavement followed up by racing at breakneck speed back to the pond, our eyes grasping for a glimpse of that hoped for elusive Duck (well OK it wasn't that action-packed), the darn thing escaped us. I suspect it WAS a Masked Duck for the following reasons:1. Because both Ed and I needed it to grace our life lists. Not only that but we have both birded for years throughout much of this species range without seeing it. We have both seen Harpy Eagle but not Masked Duck!! This pseudo-submariner-rail-duck is my neotropical nemesis bird!
2. Because from my shadowy brief glimpse, Least Grebe did not register; a bird I have seen on dozens of occasions.
3. Because there was enough emergent vegetation present to hide one of those little-known secret masquerades that Masked Ducks attend.
Barahona: Barahona was fairly easy to navigate with the map from Lonely Planet. Most birders stay in hotels near the shore on the west edge of the city. We followed this tradition staying at the Hotel Caribe. To get there, just follow the main road into town until it ends near the seashore. Take a right, hotel is a few blocks on the right. Although there is parking in front, make sure you ask about parking in back unless you want to have your vehicle washed and scratched by a local kid who will then demand more than whatever you give him (however, it is good to be generous- the kid isn't doing the job for kicks). Make sure you do ask at the front desk concerning parking in back because the concierge didn’t offer this info. on her own. We found her pretty listless and less than forthcoming with helpful information. She might be a font of baseball talk though as she was most interested in watching baseball games on TV. If you stay at the Hotel Caribe, hopefully her team will win and she will be more helpful. Come to think of it, dealing with the front desk had an oddly beurocratic feel to it. Nevertheless we received fair enough service and I would stay there again. The place also has a nice restaurant with cold Presidentes and great seafood. More pricey than other local joints but quiet, excellent service and they also take visa. Room was also fairly quiet and fair priced with air and hot water.
Be informed that locals claimed Barahona was a fairly sketchy, dangerous place for tourists at night.
Although Barahona has been the base for many a birding trip to the DR, it's not so close to the key sites. Duverge is at least an hour closer to most principal sites in the Sierra. There is also basic, cheap lodging there. One place we found is the Hotel Ana. Rooms cost about $10.00 per night with parking on street. Although we didn't stay here because we had already paid for our stay in Barahona, the rooms looked basic but fine. Proprietors also run a family restaurant across the street. We ate there and I highly recommend it to get the true Dominican family culinary experience. We got loads of food and it was excellent. Directions to Hotel Ana: Heading west on the main street through Duverge, take a right at the Shell gas station just after the zona militar. The restaurant (very small) is two blocks down. This is located at the corner of general Cabral and Damiro Ademes.
Birding near Barahona:
Other trip reports always mention early starts from Barahona to get to the key sites on time. Yes, this is unfortunately true. You must depart by 4 or 5 if you wish to bird the sierra at or shortly after dawn. We couldn't leave this early all mornings because we were too tired from driving around so much on previous days. Nevertheless we got in some good birding.
On our first morning in Barahona, we actually stayed for breakfast at the hotel as our main plan was to bird the Alcoa road in the afternoon. This worked out OK with a leisurely, nice drive south along the coast. There were pull-offs now and then with beautiful views of the sea minus birds. Yes, the sea was a gorgeous light blue color similar to that of the endemic gemstone larimar but was absent of bird life for us.
We made a brief stop at the Oviedo lagoon but did not bird it. From an observation tower here we saw a Greater Yellowlegs, and 2 Reddish Egrets with 2 local guys throwing stones at them but no Flamingos (the birds flew away unharmed). We did not bird the lake because we wanted to concentrate on the Alcoa road and also because a guide was required to enter. One guy was there for hire who seemed interested in birds and professional. If you want to bird the lagoon, ask for him, he goes by the name of "Moro".
Beyond Oviedo, the road passes through part of a huge national park. The road was annoyingly curvy but very picturesque, passing through a desert landscape of sun-drenched cactus and xeric vegetation. Like typical deserts, it was desolate and dangerously beautiful; the type of place where the vehicle becomes the mobile oasis. The turn-off for the Alcoa road is signed from the curvy road.
Alcoa road: named after the aluminum mining giant, it should be called "camino casi-perfecto". This is the best road on Hispaniola and is "almost perfect" only because it lacks hummingbird feeders and staked out Stygian Owls. The road is wide enough to be 4 lanes yet it is practically devoid of traffic and people. There is good habitat that changes with elevation comprised of xeric vegetation, dry forest, moist forest and finally extensive pine forest with as much room to pull-off as you want. Oh yeah, and the birding is pretty good too! We stopped a few times along the xeric section without seeing too much of interest although there should be Key-West Quail Doves and Flat-billed Vireos here. Our first very productive spot was at the curve just after the pines started. This was one of those wonderful places where you start getting your target birds as soon as you exit the car despite it being noon with pleasant weather and a quiet breeze sifting through the Caribbean pines. Broad-billed Todies were brrt brrting, their Narrow-billed relatives were making frog-like calls and Antillean Euphonias sang jumbled songs from the tree tops. We got Hispaniolan Peewee right away (and saw lots more everywhere in the sierra), and tracked down one of my most wanted target birds shortly thereafter as it lacadaisically tagged along with a mixed species flock; Antillean Piculet! Hispaniola is full of gorgeous, boisterous, aptly named Hispaniolan Woodpeckers that are the size of a Red-bellied. They bounce around the streets of Santo Domingo sans shame, calling loudly and showing off the postage stamp of stripes on their necks as if they were the only Woodpeckers around. They are great and if you go, you will enjoy as many of these as you care for. You probably won't see so many Piculets though. You will probably hear their loud, distinctive song in a number of places because they are actually fairly common but they sure ain't easy to see. I attribute the difficulty in seeing Antillean Piculets to their lethargic, lazy behavior. Even when they call, it comes out as an infrequent burst of notes. It’s as if they don't really feel like calling but get so tired of hearing and seeing neighboring Hispaniolan Woodpeckers brazenly undulate all over the place that sometimes a quiet yet indomitable Piculet loses focus and has the following outburst, "HEY! I'M A WOODPECKER TOO! MAN"! And yes they certainly are a Woodpecker. In fact, they look more like a Downy Woodpecker or Veniliornis species (Smoky-Brown, Little, Red-rumped, etc.) in form than other Piculets. Although they appear to fill a similar niche, I can't go so far as to call them the Downy Woodpecker of Hispaniola because they just aren't confiding enough.
Further up this wonderful road well into the pine forest zone was the cement tank or "Charca". This thing is so famous that it even has its own official yellow sign. It’s a good spot to appreciate the fresh pine-scented air, eat your sliced bread slathered with sticky guava spread, and wait for birds to come out of the pines to drink from the cement pond. This was our first spot for Golden Swallow. It might be golden because there aren't that many around but it sure doesn't look 24 carat. Supposedly it takes on a golden hue in the right light; lighting that we never experienced. Expect something like a Tree Swallow with a slightly longer tail. OK, no more complaints from me about the Golden Swallow. I was very happy to watch them flying around in the piney, sunny air and gladly ticked it. There were also lots of Caribbean Martins; a bird I was always excited to see in the DR probably because Progne Martin species are representative of a special type of vagrant; one that likely occurs yet is so hard to identify that it flies around undocumented even when seen by experienced observers. This is because positive identification is hindered by the occurrence of other similar looking Progne Martin species. The group represents an ID puzzle that every serious bird bum would love to crack so they could believe they were famous as the cement tank that has its own yellow sign and be able to say things like so: "Yes, I figured out the whole White-bellied Martin complex thing. Of course I will autograph your Sibley guide. Oh, no he doesn't illustrate my birds. Apparently David Sibley couldn't solve the Martin puzzle. Oh, I'm sorry, I would love to go to your party Madonna but I am already scheduled to attend that martini fundraiser tonight for Gurneys Pitta. I'm sure you understand. Oh, you don’t? Well, go take a holiday and cherish the sighting of a Gurney’s Pitta. It’s so rare because what used to be so much of its playground has been destroyed".
There were also some other nice birds up there in the quiet pines too such as occasional flocks of Hisp. Parakeets, a few distant flyover Hisp. Parrots, Green-tailed Warblers, Black-crowned Palm Tanagers, many Stolid Flycatchers, Antillean Mangos, more Hisp. Emeralds, and thankfully one Hisp. Crossbill! It didn't come down to drink and the view through the scope was not such a great look but there it was. TICK! (the birding not the biting kind). A young male or female bird, it incessantly called with its oversized bill from the top of a pine near the pond.
We may have seen more birds if we had stayed until a later hour but we wanted to avoid driving at night so we missed out on Nightjars and Stygian Owl up there. More likely we missed out on wearily holding a tape recorder up to shadowy trees to disturb the quiet, starry night with the voices of birds who have long given up the ghost.
The following day we were back to the usual rough roads with unhealthy passing situations involving large trucks, lots of buzzing dirt bikes, an occasional goat and kids using the road as a playground. An early start brought us to Miguel Landestoy's night birding area near Barahona. It brought us there as far as we could tell from scant directions gleaned off the net and we went unrewarded as far as night birds go. We mostly fought with a few portions of the road that were about as rough as a road can get before it loses road status and becomes a riverbed or a pile of rocks. As mentioned previously, if you go here, you will absolutely need a vehicle with 4-wheel drive and high clearance. Instead of giving directions to the site, I suggest you contact Miguel. We ran into Miguel at the hotel and he was very helpful with birding info. despite this possibly compromising his business- stakeouts, ecology, distribution, vocalizations, you name it. He has just about all the endemics staked out; on a recent trip, some lucky clients got all including Eastern Chat Tanager(!) although I don't know if they got Gray-crowned Palm Tanager. We would have hired him for sure if we could have afforded it. I regret not hiring him anyways actually; this guy deserves support because not only will he do a great job but also because he could really make some contributions to Hisp. ornithology and accomplish a lot of good conservation work. ABC really should hire Miguel to carry out conservation projects involving things like Bay-breasted Cuckoo, La Selle Thrush, White-winged Warbler, the endemic corvids and Psittacines, etc.. ABC meaning the American Bird Conservancy, not the broadcasting giant although they should give him a job too; he could have a birding show with Tody races and Lizard Cuckoo acrobatics.
Anyways, here are two email addresses for him:
So, after a very rough pre-dawn, tired-eye drive, both the Montero and us greeted the return to the asphalt with a welcome sigh and made our way over to Duverge to head up the other side of the mountains. For the turn-off to Puerto Escondido, take a left on the road called Puerto Escondido and just follow that on up. In immense contrast to the Alcoa road, this one may be the worst in the country. Well, it’s at least the worst on the birding circuit in Hispaniola. The section between Duverge and Puerto Escondido goes through quite a bit of scrub and will cover your vehicle with a very fine white dust (and much of what’s inside the vehicle too). Spend enough time going up and down this thing and you will either resemble a ghost or an ancient person. Aside from Burrowing Owls, there wasn't a whole lot of interest along this section. Upon arrival in the village of Puerto Escondido, you must buy your entrance to the national park at the HQ. The HQ is obvious but not open very early. If you show up early, hopefully the soldiers at the checkpoint will let you pass sans entrance ticket. They certainly insisted upon ours. Past the checkpoint, the habitat improved quickly and before we knew it, we had reached the well-signed birding site known as "La Placa" which means "the sign". Habitat here was exotic old growth dry forest involving fat trees festooned with Spanish moss (doesn't it always festoon?) and a fairly open understory. This area was particularly good for colorful Hisp. Parrots; we had nice looks at several. We also had quite a few wintering Warblers, and mostly common endemics such as Hisp. Lizard Cuckoos, Vervain Hummingbirds, Hisp. Woodpeckers, Broad-billed Todies, Stolid Flys, Hisp. Peewees, Black-crowned Palm Tanagers, and Black-whiskered Vireos. There were also quite a few Gray Kingbirds that appeared to hang out in groups with Palmchats high up in the tree tops. Although intently peering into the understory and wishing for the appearance of a Kew West Quail Dove was fruitless, the drive a little bit further up the road flushed one from the side of the road. That chunky Dove did the right thing too and flew across the road directly in front of our vehicle; nice enough views to see the face pattern and ruddy/purplish back color. Yes! and our missing Key-west Quail Dove anxiety flew off with the bird. This was a major target for me because I knew we had a good chance of seeing it, it’s a regional endemic and was the first Quail-Dove species I had ever seen a picture of. For me, birds that open the minds door to their respective group often end up being the representative and most wanted species for said group. It’s as if Key-west Quail Dove is the essential Quail Dove, Elegant Trogon the most important Trogon and Scarlet Tanager the leader of the Tanagers (never mind that it is probably more closely related to Grosbeaks than most Tanager species).
We passed through the festooned dry forest until the road began a sharp ascent just after a dry river bed. At this point, the habitat abruptly changed from ochre dry to jade moist. The birds changed too. We saw more Red-legged Thrushes and heard Trogons as soon as we exited the car which we also promptly saw after playback. We also had good looks at Antillean Euphonia here which is essentially a Blue-hooded Euphonia that happens to be Antillean. Despite walking back and forth uttering a nasal "cuuuaaa" noise, no such luck with Bay-breasted Cuckoo (this is how one communicates with Bay-breasted Cuckoo).
Ascending the rough road, we went through scrubby habitat until reaching a military checkpoint on the border with Haiti. Haiti was easily recognizable by its infamous lack of trees. It was actually worse than that. It was close to complete lack of vegetation and heartbreaking. I must add here that Haitians didn't clear those forests out of spite for trees. Haitians needed something to cook food with and charcoal ended up being the fuel. They also needed more land to grow food. But how could all the trees disappear one might wonder? Because there are probably more people than the land can adequately support. Goodbye trees, hello dreadful example of the inescapable connection between population size and sustainable use of ones environment. This problem isn’t restricted to Haiti by any means. We will see similar situations in more and more places on Earth the more we ignore family planning and the fact that we do not live with infinite resources.
At the checkpoint, we were assigned a soldier. His name was David and he seemed pretty happy to leave the post to bird with us.
Too bad we didn't have binos for him, he was having fun and seemed genuinely interested in locating birds. Luckily his eager pointing and exclamations of, "mira! mira!" didn't phase the birds. At first the m-16 slung on his shoulder phased us but he didn't shoot it so we quickly became accustomed to it. He was a soldier after all. I mean what was he going to carry, a slingshot? Just because it worked with Goliath doesn't mean it will defend the borders of La Republica Dominicana. With our new bud David, we became birding veterans of Zapoten; the oft-mentioned Haitian Potato market from other birding trip reports. With such an evocative name, I was expecting rusty wheelbarrows, musty sacks bulging with earthy potatoes, small multi-colored banners fluttering in the breeze, and a bunch of Haitians yelling things like, "pommes de terre en solde"! In reality, the Haitian potato market needs a new name. A more appropriate one or description for birding purposes might be, "small area with campsite-like clear understory on the right not far after military outpost". We birded there, no potatoes in sight and had better birding further up the road in better habitat so don't even concern yourself with the "market". Go up the road and watch Hisp. Quail Doves like we did. Hot damn! We saw maybe three Quail Doves flushing from the road side (rufous flight feathers prominent) and walking in the understory of the cloud forest. I located and had perfect looks at one lovely bird by listening for it rustling the leaves of the forest floor. It sure was lovely that Quail-Dove with its dark purplish upperparts, pearl gray neck and white front. Despite it not being the essential Quail-Dove (like the Highlander there can only be one!), I was extremely satisfied ticking it. Yipee!- I just love Quail-Doves. Is it a Quail? Is it a Dove? A Geotrygon is a little bit of both and as far as the Columbidae go, they are downright adorable. This was unexpected satisfaction; the kind that beautifully blossoms from a dry shrub of doubt. Another great bird of the cloud forest was Rufous-throated Solitaire. We must have heard a dozen before we finally saw one. I kept searching low but unlike Black-faced Solitaires in Costa Rica, the Rufous-throated sang from high up in the trees. A smart-looking bird, it reminded me of a Cotinga in shape. Oh yeah, I guess I should mention something about its song since we heard so many that remained unseen. Well, if you have heard other Myadestes Solitaires, you can probably surmise that the Rufous-throated has a nice song too. Only thing is it’s song isn’t just nice. Like all things stirring, its beyond words so the following description doesn’t do it justice but what the hell. Its kind of like a hauntingly bewitching beautiful cloud forest medley of minor-key tones and trills just long enough to take the breath away and gently squeeze the heart making it ache and yearn for...for... that je ne sais pas (since we are on the Haitian birder). Maybe they sing that way because they are trying to entrance would-be woodcutters into leaving the trees in peace while at the same time expressing their sorrow for age-old mossy, leafy neighborhoods that were converted to charcoal. I'm not sure if I have heard a better Solitaire than this one (and I’ve heard all Myadestes species). Do they sing the same in Jamaica? Some of the other birds we saw were Trogons (perfect looks), Narrow-billed Todies, Greater Antillean Elaenia (did I mention I love Flycatchers?), Golden Swallow, White-winged Warblers, Western Spindalis, and Western Chat Tanager. The Chat Tanagers briefly foraged with a mixed flock in bamboo. These are super cool birds that are very un-Tanager like; large, black and white, they make clicking noises and tend to skulk; bonus birds! I also got fair looks at Scaly-naped Pigeon. This is kind of like a montane White-crowned Pigeon with a strange red "eye ring" in lieu of a white-crown.
All I can say about La Selle Thrush is that we missed it (boo-hoo)!! On the way back down, we exchanged David for a pregnant Haitian women in need of a ride to Duverge. She wasn’t into birds, didn’t have a gun and unlike David was at a loss for words. Not sure what she thought of my Bay-breasted Cuckoo imitations. That couldn't be connected to those rumours going round Haiti about strange gringos that talk to sun-drenched thick tree groves in wierd "cwuuaaa" voices I suppose. Although we missed the Cuckoo (which is highly endangered), I did get one response to my "cwuuaas". The excitement of communicating with a Bay-breasted Cuckoo, however brief, I suspect can only be superseded by actually seeing one. Hopefully one day I will be able to test that hypothesis. CWUUAAA!
The long descent down the dustiest road brought us to Duverge and a wonderful lunch at the Comedor Ana. After lunch we drove towards Haiti searching for some way to bird the palms or xeric habitat. Although there were a couple of side roads we didn't take them and couldn't really find any suitable pull-offs. So, we kind of drove around not seeing much from the car. Back in Barahona, it was another fantastic dinner of mahi mahi or rice with shrimp.
It was back up the dustiest road the next morning to look for Bay-breasted Cuckoo and Loggerhead Kingbird. We started at La Placa seeing much of the same stuff as the previous day in the wonderful festooned forest. We birded our way up the road to the Cuckoo spot cwuuaaing away but only saw Lizard Cuckoos. Mind you, I'm not dissing Lizard Cuckoos- they are very cool and lizardy- reverting back to dinosaurs. They weren't life birds anymore however, and since we were running out of time to see Bay-breasted Cuuaaing Cuckoo they didn't seem as important. Well, we at least got onto a pair of Zenaida Doves; lifer for Ed and also got Loggerhead Kingbird; lifer for both of us. I love Tyrannids so I was very pleased to get this one. At first I passed it off as a Stolid Fly! Boy oh boy; mistaking a Tyrranus for a Myiarchus! This could compromise my eligibility for membership in the Organization of Aficionados for the Tyrannidae (if such an excellent society ever comes to fruition). Honestly though, from the angle at which I first saw this bird, the shape made me think of a Myiarchus. Something didn't seem right, however and I kept watching it. Luckily the bird didn't fly away and I realized that it was a Loggerhead Kingbird when it revealed the bit of yellow on its head. I think what threw me was actually one of its field marks; the brownish wings and tail. It does have quite the logger of a head too I might add. Now I must see the Giant Kingbird of Cuba; looks like an Eastern Kingbird doing an imitation of a Boat-billed Flycatcher.
Loggerhead Kingbird ticked, we left the La Placa area hoping to try for Bay-breasted Cuckoo at the Rabo de gato trail. There is a nice sign for the trail it but good luck finding it! We ended up driving next to a canal for some ways, never saw another sign and never found it. "Rats"! or in Hispaniola, maybe I should say, "Solenodons"! No more chances at Bay-breasted Cuckoo this trip! After not finding Rabo de gato it was back down the dusty road stopping now and then in a chalky cloud to spish spish spish for Flat-billed Vireo. This spishing brought in lots of dusty wintering Warblers but no Vireo. So, we figured we would drive around and look for Palm Crows again. Assuming they were named correctly, we hung out in a couple of palm groves and saw ....tall, scenic palms! We even ended up driving around the lake and came up with the following conclusion and advice; not worth it, don't bother doing it. We mostly passed through orchards and pasture and couldn't get very close to the lake. The going was slow too because of all the villages with their respective clusters of speed bumps dotting the thoroughfare. Men on a mission, we drove around the entire remnant inland sea known as Lago Enriquillo and dipped on Palm Crow. Turns out you have to ignore their name and look for them in xeric habitat closer to the lake or up in the pines. Miguel says they are local. I wouldn't be surprised if they were endangered. All that driving did turn up one lifer though; Plain Pigeon. OK, so it’s a got a lackluster name and true this time the name fits. Nevertheless, the Plain Pigeon is special because it is definitely endangered. Not only does it range throughout much of the Greater Antilles, it’s also eaten throughout much of the Greater Antilles. There must be a lot of people hungry for these things because it probably doesn't need pristine forest. Supposedly, there is a good population in Haiti because there are fewer firearms there. Our sighting was almost as plain a sighting as one could get of the Pigeon. This was a lone flyover somewhere between Duverge and Barahona. A brownish Columba (or should I attempt to say, "Patagoenas" species, a bit grayish on the chest with a darkish tail. Yep, that’s a Plain Pigeon, luckily we saw it in good light so at least it wasn't a silhouette. I have composed a haiku that sums up the experience perfectly in its brevity and essence. I call it "Flyover lifer Pigeon"
Potholes in the road.
Whats that flying overhead?
Plain Pigeon? Got it!
On our final day in the birdiest corner of the DR, instead of trekking back up through the fine white dust to communicate with invisible Bay-breasted Cuckoos, we tried a new spot Miguel had told us about. The site is called Polo road and is certainly worth a visit. If not for the Eastern Chat Tanagers that have been found there then for the fact that most of this road is paved and very nice! Heading towards Duverge, at Cabral, follow the signs to "Polo". Take a left at a sign with a black cross (I’m not kidding). Just after town, the road ascends through extensive scrubby habitat where it really seemed like we would get a Vireo with a flat bill. Once again we spished in lots of Warblers but no dice with the Vireo. Could it be embarrassed because it doesn’t have as fierce-looking a mug with shrike-ish bill like so many of those other Vireos? The Red-eyed doesn't say, "see me? up here! here I am, up here!" Thats a misinterpretation. No, a more accurate translation (in a James Cagney voice) is, "say what? Yeah you! Listen see! Up yours"! Innocuous little green birds? Ha! Take a closer look at a Red-eyeds face (if you dare) the next time you see one. These little guys are angry! Sure the Blue-headed and Yellow-throateds have lazier-sounding songs and spectacles instead of a pursed brow but watch out! They are livid and worse; they keep the anger pent up inside. You can tell with their songs. Their songs might sound lazy and burry but this is more like the calm before the storm; an internalized maelstrom, a seething hidden torrent on the verge of bursting through the dam wiping out everything in its way!! Put it this way, it would not be a good idea to let those Vireos work for the postal service. Fortunately for us, their anger gets vented upon things like spiders, small insects and lots of larvae. Poor squishable larvae; at least the Vireos smash them with such fervor that the terror and pain barely registers. We don’t know if Flat-billed Vireos are stuck up, embarrassed or anti-social. What we do know is that we didn’t see them. That was an unexpected dip for me. I've generally had very good luck with Vireos wherever I have gone. I think the only one I have previously dipped on is Chestnut-sided Shrike Vireo and since I at least get to see lots of Warblers with chestnut-sides I don't feel so bad.
Past the dry scrubby stuff along the road to Polo, this wonderful paved byway reaches some nice, moist riparian woods and shade coffee plantations. Up there the birding was pretty good. Had a couple of flyover Scaly-naped Pigeons (beats Plain hands down in looks) and good numbers of common birds. Although we didn't see Eastern Chat Tanager, Miguel has found them somewhere up that road. Eventually the road crests over and descends to a small town.
After the Polo road, our next goal was to reach Santo Domingo before dark. We made one more lame attempt at the Vireo along the way. This was along a short side road that penetrated dry scrub culminating at a radio tower. It looked like an ideal place to bird because there weren’t any people. Nothing but dry scrubby vegetation for miles in all directions. Nothing that is until we chanced upon the family living in a makeshift hut near the radio tower. Shotgun in hand, the weathered patriarch was there to guard the tower. His family was there to somehow survive in that hot, dry scrub and keep him company. I couldn’t believe they lived out there in such a harsh environment. After explaining our presence to the guard and giving them the rest of our bananas we gave up on the Vireo and continued back on our way to Santo Domingo, reaching the big city before nightfall despite the usual traffic jams and absence of good directions. We stayed in the same hotel as our first night in the DR. This was the “Gran Mansion” although I prefer to call it the hotel of the exploding doors. No, there weren’t any bombs nor were the doors dangerous in any way, they just made a sudden “BOOM” noise every time they were opened. This phenomenon wasn’t restricted to our room either. Exploding door booms echoed throughout the hotel at random times throughout the night. I felt a compelling instinctive desire to dive for cover at every boom. Not having lived in a war zone, it was difficult to get used to. The booms combined with mosquitoes, a neighbor’s tortured sounding cat and a nearby whining dog made for fairly sleepless nights at the Gran Mansion. Fortunately we didn’t have to awake early the next morning and after one last dinner of excellent seafood along the waterfront we flew back to the cold north the following day. Maybe someday I will get the chance to come back and “Cwuuuaaa” for Cuckoos, see a La Selle Thrush, tick the Palm Crow, coax an embarrassed Vireo out of hiding and get those night birds!
Epilogue: OK, so there’s nothing about merengue here. I am pretty sure it’s the national music of the Dominican Republic so it goes into the title of this pseudo trip report. If you visit you will surely hear it! Very fun sounding and also fun to dance to. “Huepa!!” say the Palmchats!
Name: Pat O'Donnell
Location: Normal, Illinois, United States
Birding is a major component in my life. I am opposed to use of the word "should" and "amazing". I like to travel. And the rest of this will be one rambling sentance because the first ones are as curt as a crisply dressed automaton so I also like to travel especially to tropical places where the birding can be ridiculously exhilirating and general experiences surreal such as the following I have had: fighting off a brazen kinkajou in Podocarpus Park, Ecuador, a day in Costa Rica of almost stepping on a jumping viper followed by watching a moustached local fellow cry because I wouldnt go eat tamales and drink with him with strange Nicaraguan TV playing in the background, sitting next to a one-eyed coca chewing (and smelling) non-Spanish speaking eldery woman on a small bus in Bolivia travelling down one of the scariest roads I have ever seen, and as for non-travelling info. oh yes I am trying to finish up a masters in biology at ISU: molecular phylogeny of Automolus with character mapping of vocalizations; Foliage-gleaners don't really glean the foliage, its more like poking and prodding while giving occasional sharp calls and staccato songs.