TRIP REPORT: DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – 2013 February – Hispaniola Endemic Birding
Trip report written by Adrian Binns
Day 1 / Feb 5 – Arrival in Santo Domingo; National Botanical Garden
The Dominican Republic side of Hispaniola hosts a high number of avian endemics amidst a variety of habitats, making it an appealing birding destination. With this in mind, Gabriel Lugo, a fellow Wildside Tour Leader, and myself journeyed there to scout the island and organize an itinerary for a future Wildside Tours trip.
We met at the airport in Santo Domingo, noting that the lack of signs, both directional and stop signs, as well as the anything-goes-me-first attitude of drivers, made for a most memorable first drive in the country! We managed to find our way without incident, to our first destination, the National Botanical Gardens, and began looking for some of the 32 endemic bird species of the Dominican Republic. This 400-acre park, an oasis inside an urban jungle, was well maintained with lush plantings and wonderful landscaping. While many people were out enjoying their daily walk, we spent 3 outstanding hours exploring the grounds.
We enjoyed great views of 5 endemic species. The ubiquitous Palmchats (right), the national bird, greeted us upon arrival, flying between their favorite Royal Palm trees and lower shrubs to feed. Our attention was drawn to the noisy calls of Hispaniolan Parakeets; we found two pairs occupying woodpecker holes. While those 4 stayed at their nest site, we saw several more small flocks flying over another section of the gardens. Stunning Hispaniolan Woodpeckers were readily seen in some open areas; we found one pair at their nest hole feeding begging young. A pair of Black-crowned Palm-Tanagers crossed our path and landed in a small open tree long enough to study the birds. The last endemic we encountered was the beautiful Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo with its rich buff throat and bright red eye-ring.
Two very common species were Northern Mockingbirds and Antillean Palm Swifts who made frequent flights into the palms where they would have had nests. Antillean Mangos (hummingbirds, not fruits) frequented the orchid flower trees for sweet nectar. The Vervain Hummingbird, just 3″, is the second smallest hummingbird in the world, and makes a surprisingly insistent call for it’s diminutive size!
We walked the eastern edge, outer loop of the garden, finding a dozen West Indian Whistling Ducks (left) feeding in the shallows of a small stream that ran through a narrow gallery forest. We heard the piping notes of a Solitary Sandpiper before seeing it. The stream banks were densely vegetated, but we saw a Green Heron and a Snowy Egret feeding in open areas. In wider, calmer spots of the water channel we watched Least Grebes and Common Gallinules with very young chicks. Walking away from the stream, we heard a rustling of leaves in the woods. To our surprise, it was a Limpkin stalking up a bank in the woods. We learned that here on Hispaniola, Limpkins are more likely to be encountered within the forests!
There are a number of stunning thrushes in the turdus family, but for me, the spiffy Red-legged Thrush is among the finest. I watched two birds interacting near some trees, one behaving like a guard, while the other moved around boldly.
The Dominican Republic is a popular winter ground for some eastern wood-warblers. Our 2-mile walk along a lovely paved outer loop road featured American Redstart, Ovenbird, Prairie, Black-and-white, Cape May, Louisiana Waterthrush and Northern Parula.
We spent the evening in the capital city, grateful for fresh fruit and cold drinks after a long, humid day of travel and birding. We would be up early to explore more of the island tomorrow.
Day 2 / Feb 6 – Sierra de Bahoruco, Rabo de Gato
Our first full day in the Dominican Republic began early, as Gabriel and I were eager to explore and continue our quest for the 32 Hispaniolan avian endemics that make this island a popular birding destination. We left the capital, Santo Domingo, and picked-up local expert Miguel, who would guide Gabriel and I in search of the island’s endemics. Soon we were passing pairs of American Kestrels (right) hunting along fields of plantains, mangos, sugarcane and coconut palms that dominated the Neiba Valley. This light-colored endemic subspecies would be one of the most numerous species seen during our trip.
Our destination was the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, in the southwest region of the Dominican Republic; this area is also referred to as the “South Island.” Nearly all of the country’s endemics can be found in this tropical highland ecosystem that is recognized as a globally important area of biodiversity, and encompassed in the UNESCO Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve.
After picking up a park pass in the newly-opened park headquarters in Puerto Escondido, we headed up the north slope of the mountain range featuring a variety of habitats, including dry, semi-deciduous, humid broadleaf, cloud and pine forest. Gray Kingbird, Antillean Bullfinch and Bananaquit were encountered along the way. At 500 meters we reached Kate Wallaceʼs campground and stopped just beyond at the Rabo de Gato picnic area to look for target endemics amid the mid-elevation riparian gallery forest.
We found both the Narrow-billed Tody (left) (usually found in the higher elevations) and the Broad-billed Tody, a common lowland species. These small, colorful insect eaters are most closely related to the neotropical motmots, and as a generalization, each species forages at a different level in the trees, with Narrow-billed preferring upper canopy. Of the 5 species that make up this Caribbean family, this is the only island that has 2 todies.
The first of many Stolid Flycatcher (a Myiarchus species) showed well, appearing like a washed-out version of a Great-Crested Flycatcher. We heard a flock of Antillean Siskins chattering in the distance, and located them through the scope, perched high on a distant ridgetop. A Flat-billed Vireo, sounding a bit like a titmouse, foraged in low vegetation and tangles on the slope, revealing his white iris, wing bars and white tips to the outer tail feathers. A pair of Hispaniolan Orioles flew in to a grove of palm trees, and an Antillean Piculet gleaned insects near the top of the canopy. One of only two woodpecker species on Hispaniola, the Antillean Piculet, at nearly 6″, is the world’s largest piculet.
We found familiar neotropical migrants such as American Redstart, Northern Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-throated Blue, Cape May, Prairie and Black-and-white Warbler, as well as Summer Tanager, one of the very few records in Hispaniola. We added another endemic to our list, our twelfth, the rather dull-looking Hispaniolan Pewee, then got a brief glimpse of a Key-West Quail-Dove before it flushed from the trail into the understory.
On the road leading to the gravel mine, we were rewarded with a Bay-breasted Cuckoo perched briefly in the open. Larger than the Lizard-Cuckoo, this is now a very localized and rare inhabitant of the low to mid elevations of this mountain range. We also saw our first group of several fly-over Hispaniolan Parrots.
Back at the picnic area, we located a pair of Hispaniolan Trogons, stunningly beautiful with glossy green head and back, and red bellies. They perched very quietly, turning their heads in slow-motion to avoid detection by any potential prey, as they foraged in the mid and lower level of the interior forest. We were delighted to spot a beautiful White- fronted Quail-Dove with its striking white fore-crown, walking up the slope. This chunky ground bird managed to blend in well amongst the leaf litter, as we followed it carefully. Miquel mentioned that he felt the Bay-breasted Cuckoo and White-fronted Quail-Dove were quite possibly the two toughest endemics to find.
On our way out, a Helmeted Guineafowl, an African species introduced in the early 16th century, exploded out of the forest edge, and flew along the trail before veering quickly back into the woods.
We ended the day’s birding in the savannah scrub habitat at the base of the range, where Great Antillean Grackles, Gray Kingbirds and Palmchats were numerous. There was excitement when a Merlin came flying through and dove into a tree full of Palmchats. Yellow-faced Grassquit and an assortment of neotropical migrant warblers foraged along a shrub hedgerow, and a couple of Plain Pigeons flew overhead, heading in to roost.
As we drove towards the coast and the small town of Barahona, our base for the next few days, we saw the first of several pairs of Burrowing Owls. It was interesting to note that all that all the Burrowing Owls encountered during our trip were found along densely vegetated thorn scrub or wooded areas, not in the expected open areas. These birds burrowed within limestone banks along the edge of dirt roads.
As darkness descended, we stopped once more when a Barn Owl flew in front of our vehicle and landed on a fence post – a great ending to an exciting day!
Day 3 / Feb 7 – Sierra de Bahoruco, Zapoten; Lago Enriquillo environs; Laguna LImon
Our exploration of the Dominican Republic continued on day 3, starting well before dawn to climb high into the mountain range of Sierra de Bahoruco National Park. Though the total distance is less than 70 kms, it took nearly 3 hours to negotiate the steep, rocky, limestone-covered road in our four-wheel drive vehicle, to arrive by daybreak. We were within a few meters of the Haitian border, and passed through 4 checkpoints along the way, wakening the guards to let us through!
The distinction between the two countries was evident by the forest clear-cutting in Haiti, and tropical forest remaining in the Dominican Republic. It was remarkable to see such a distinct line stretching as far as the eye could see along the rolling terrain – one side with trees, the other just brown earth dotted with tree stumps. The establishment of National Parks in the Dominican Republic helps protect natural resources that are under tremendous pressure from local people and foreign interests. Driving through the park before dawn with the windows down, we could hear a Hispaniolan Nightjar. This northern slope habitat of montane deciduous broadleaf, rising to evergreen cloud forest, hosts several high-elevation endemics.
As the first hints of light showed some avian activity, we stopped near Zapoten, at an elevation of 1600 meters. Our target was the rare, endangered La Selle Thrush (right), only discovered in the Dominican Republic 40 years ago. We soon saw one foraging in short grasses along the roadside. We approached very quietly and slowly to get good looks, as it would move a few feet, pause, then resume feeding. Within an hour of dawn, these birds would disappear into the undergrowth and vanish into the forest. A Bicknellʼs Thrush was also foraging in the same area, preferring to stay on the dirt road. Several skulking Western Chat- Tanagers were coaxed into view in the undergrowth, as best as we could see them.
We didn’t have to walk far, as the birds kept coming to us. Green-tailed Ground-Tanagers showed well, looking very much like warblers. A small flock of pretty Hispaniolan Highland-Tanagers (left) worked their way across the road and up the slope deeper into the forest. A male Hispaniolan Emerald checked all the flowers along the edge the edge of the road, pausing to preen on open bare branches. A pair of Greater Antillean Bullfinches emerged from dense vegetation to pose for a moment, the male striking in black and red plumage.
Red-legged Thrushes outnumbered either of the two more secretive thrushes we had seen, while another member of the thrush family, Rufous-throated Solitaire, was heard giving lovely haunting whistle calls all around us. We got our first look at a Greater Antillean Eleania as it perched in the open. A Red-tailed Hawk soared overhead, lingering in the forest interior, in contrast with familiar U.S. Red-tails that habituate suburbs, cities and highway edges.
Heading back down the mountain we enjoyed a nice mixed flock that featured Black-crowned Palm-Tanager, Hispaniolan Spindalis, Hispaniolan Pewee (right) and Narrow-billed Tody, foraging amongst overhanging roadside vegetation. We scoped a distant, calling Antillean Euphonia, and located a Bay-breasted Cuckoo watching us.
We returned to Duverge for lunch at Corpita Moquette. It was a true “home- cooked meal” as the tiny place had just one table set between some buildings, and the delicious chicken, rice and beans were cooked, peeled and washed out in the open in front of us.
After our meal, we drove a short distance to Lago Enriquillo, the largest lake in the Caribbean, situated 40 meters below sea level. Since 2007, the water levels of this saline lake have risen considerably to cover adjacent land and kill surrounding palm trees. Along the southern shore of this vast, surreal wetlands landscape, we saw Great and Snowy Egrets, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, Laughing Gull, Royal and Sandwich Terns, and Osprey. The lake is ringed by dry thorny mesquite scrubland, and in the heat of the afternoon we could not locate our target Hispaniolan Palm Crows, settling for Broad-billed Todies that never cease their flying sorties for food.
We made a stop at Laguna Limon, a lovely marsh set among the scrubland where a number of Caribbean Coot chased each other. We heard a Sora while finding Common Gallinules, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Green Heron and a Least Bittern. We pished in a flock of about two dozen warblers amongst mesquite trees including Northern Parula, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, Prairie and Palm Warblers, as well as Broad-billed Tody. (right)
By late afternoon the heat had dropped to the mid-nineties, and we had a little better chance of finding our target crows. Luck was with us when we heard them calling, then spotted 9 Hispaniolan Palm Crows flying overhead. Mission accomplished we drove back to Barahona, having now seen 23 endemics, and enjoyed a well-earned meal after a long day of successful birding.
Day 4 / Feb 8 – Laguna de Oviedo; Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, Aceitillar
This morning, our birding tour of the Dominican Republic took us down the southwest coastline, along the edges of the Barahona peninsula. Where the lush hills of the Sierra Bahoruco meet the sparkling blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans could be seen diving.
Amid the multitude of palm trees dotting a limestone landscape, we found a large group of White-necked Crows (right) noisily socializing on some farmland around Penalba. Sounding like a cross between oropendulas and parrots, this species of corvid seems to be faring better than declining Palm Crows, perhaps because they feed in trees, whereas Palm Crows forage on the ground and may be ingesting more toxic pesticides.
We took an early lunch at a family-run roadside cafe, “Parador Garcia Fernandez,” where I enjoyed conch and crab heaped with rice. Continuing south, we stopped at the Laguna de Oviedo, just inside the Jaragua National Park which encompasses the tip of the peninsula. Scanning the muddy mangrove edges of the saltwater lagoon, we found a couple of American Flamingos, a white morph Reddish Egret (the only morph found in Hispaniola), Great Blue Herons, White Ibis and a Caspian Tern. A Peregrine Falcon caught our attention when it flushed a small flock of shorebirds.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent in the Aceitillar section, on the southern slope of the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park. We drove through dry thorn scrub, ascending steadily from sea level through moist broadleaf forests, on a wide paved road built by the Alcoa company. We reached the now-inactive Alcoa mining pits, surrounded by pine forests, and took a short walk towards the center of the pit. A pair of Green-tailed Ground Tanagers foraged low in a grove of pines, and we saw Golden Swallows flying around the remains of the mine, flashing their green backs tinged with gold.
At 1100 meters, we were within the Pine forest and delighted to encounter several pairs of Hispaniolan Crossbills (right) coming to drink from a water trough. At least today, it was relatively easy locating two upper elevation endemics. With time to spare, we continued on through the pine forest to the end of the road at Hoyo de Pelempito, where the Visitors Center, an open wooden building with wraparound deck, highlighted stunning views of the valley between the northern and southern mountains of this “south island.”
In the late afternoon we headed back down the mountain, stopping at the broadleaf forest to check out the avian activity. Birding the road, we found many Palm Warblers, both Narrow-billed and Broad-billed Todies, Antillean Euphonia, Antillean Piculet and Flat-billed Vireo. A stunning male Hispaniolan Spindalis appeared briefly as we listened to the beautifully haunting whistle of Rufous-throated Solitaires accompanying the setting sun. Scaly-naped Pigeons flapped through the canopy, shuffling for a place to roost.
Flocks of noisy Hispaniolan Parrots (left) staged along the road in small groups, and we could see a few Olive-throated Parakeets flying around their nest hole in a bank on the forest slope.
The Hispaniolan Nightjar began calling at dusk, right on cue. We heard 4 individuals, and saw one swoop and perch briefly for us. Not far away, an Ashy-faced Owl called non-stop, possibly a begging juvenile. We tracked it down through the dense broadleaf forest where we found it calling from high up a tree, appearing to be an adult owl.
We toasted another day of birding in the Dominican Republic, delighted that our endemic list now totals 28 species.
Day 5 / Feb 9 – Cabo Rojo; Sierra de Bahoruco NP, Aceitillar
Today we continued our avian exploration of the southwestern side of Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, and the Barahona peninsula. We began after breakfast with a visit to the lagoons and wetlands of Cabo Rojo, situated adjacent to a cement factory, between the Sierra de Bahoruco and Jaragua National Parks on the peninsula. Framed by coastal cliffs, the marshy area hosted Black-necked Stilt, White Ibis, Snowy and Great Egrets, Blue-winged Teal, Caribbean Coot, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Clapper Rail. In roadside vegetation, pairs of Yellow Warblers, the endemic subspecies, flitted about chasing each other.
Along the cliffs, Caribbean Martins and Cave Swallows swooped overhead while distant Brown Boobies and White-tailed Tropicbirds circled over the sparkling sea waves. In the coming months these seabirds will nest in the cliffs. From a stretch of sand beach near the factory, we saw a lone Black-bellied Plover at the water’s edge, and watched Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns patrolling the waters.
We returned to the Alcoa Road in the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, ascending into pine forest to look for Antillean Palm Crows in the highlands. We dipped on the crows, but enjoyed a mixed flock of Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, along with the endemic subspecies of Pine Warblers. Golden Swallows hawked insects over the pines, flashing in the sun.
A lower elevation stop in the broadleaf forest produced our best view yet of stunning Hispaniolan Spindalis (left), along with Ruddy Quail-Dove, Greater Antillean Eleania, Narrow-billed and Broad- billed Todies, and an assortment of butterflies. We encountered an amorous pair of Rhinoceros Iguanas on the road as we departed.
Nearing midday, we stopped at Fondo Paradi on the Baharona peninsula to look unsuccessfully for Key West Quail-Dove, but we enjoyed seeing a confiding Broad-billed Tody and several cooperative Green-tailed Ground-Tanagers. Following lunch at “Garcia Fernandez” we continued on to our lodge, the Casa Bonita, and checked in for a few hours rest before heading back out for some night birding.
That evening, just a short drive away from our lodging, we followed a rough track ascending into broadleaf forest on the eastern slope of the Bahoruco mountain range. At a staging area, we parked and walked a few hundred meters up hill. The timing was perfect, as a Chuck-willʼs-widow immediately flew past us, perched on a bare branch, then soared off into the night. We waited for a little more darkness, before Least Pauraques began calling. Our local guide, Miguel, had positioned us in hopes one would land nearby. Sure enough, one flew in close fluttering long enough to see it’s diminutive size, but it didn’t perch. The Least Pauraque was a new endemic for our list, bringing the total number to 29.
As we listened to the nightjars, we heard an Ashy-faced Owl (right) calling quite close, and were able to track it down sitting beside the trail. Closer to the main track, we heard a Northern Potoo calling in the distance. This proved tougher to find, as it was perched on a snag high up in the canopy. Our last nocturnal bird was one that Miguel had seen before, and was convinced it was something unusual. When orange-red eyeshine revealed its location in our flashlights, we approached very quietly for better looks. We were able to get close enough and long enough views to determine that it was likely a Whip-poor-will, which would not only be a first record for the Dominican Republic and Hispaniola but is a very uncommon bird anywhere within the Caribbean islands. What an exciting way to end the day!
Day 6 / Feb 10 – Sierra de Bahoruco NP, Cachote; Sierra de Neiba NP; transfer to Los Haities
Today we transferred from one region of the Dominican Republic to another, aiming to find the few remaining endemic species we needed. Before embarking on the long drive, we took a pre-breakfast trek back up the eastern slope of the Sierra de Bahoruco to Cachote (right), navigating yet another rough, rocky road. We arrived in this high elevation montane cloud forest at first light, and could hear our target Eastern Chat-Tanagers calling. We tracked one down for reasonably good views of it perching on a branch in the lush, moist understory. As expected, they stopped calling a half- hour after daybreak, and could not be found again. This was our 30th of 32 Hispaniolan avian endemics.
Descending the hill, we stopped when we heard Hispaniolan Giant Geckos. Despite their large size, we could not locate any of the half dozen calling around us.
After breakfast, we checked out of the Casa Bonita lodge and began journeying eastwards. We still needed one endemic from this part of the country – the Hispaniolan Loggerhead Kingbird (left). It eluded us on our visit to the northern slope so we ventured in to the lovely Sierra de Neiba National Park, and found some suitable thorn scrub along a dry stream bed. Gabriel, picked a likely spot to stop and within minutes we located one perched beside the road.
We also found Broad-billed Todies, Yellow-faced Grassquits and Hispaniolan Pewee along the way.
Following a wonderful buffet lunch at Cujuil in San Juan de la Maguana, we continued the long drive to the Eastern part of the country, slowed by crossing the congested capital of Santo Domingo. We stopped briefly at a marsh west of Bani, adding Killdeer to our trip list, but mid-afternoon heat meant minimal bird activity.
Once through the capital city, the landscape changed from mesquite, cactus and green rolling hills to dominating fields of monotonous sugarcane. Everywhere people were cutting down cane stalks, stacking it onto carts and train carriages, and working at factories bellowing dark smoke. Clearly, sugarcane is a driving force in the economy of the Dominican Republic.
By dark we reached the Paraiso Cano Hondo in the northeastern part of the country. This lodge would serve as our base in the search for the critically-endangered, endemic Ridgwayʼs Hawk, confined only to the mountain ranges of Los Haities National Park. Tomorrow, our search would begin.
Day 7 / Feb 11 – Cano Hondo in Los Haities NP
Our final day in the Dominican Republic was the only one it rained. Torrential downpours, the first in 2 weeks, did not dampen our determination to tick the final endemic species of our trip, the critically-endangered Ridgway’s Hawk, found only in the mountain ranges of Los Haities National Park.
Michael, the local guide for this specialty bird, met up with us at the appointed time, but we waited a while for the weather to clear, having time for breakfast before heading out. Skies still looked ominous when we opted to go for it. Wrapped in waterproof ponchos and umbrellas, we crossed fingers that rain would let-up enough for us to see the hawk. The good news was that there was a nest in a palm tree very close to our lodge, and a pair seems to be interested in using it for a
We climbed the steep path behind the lodge grounds, then down through a gated field. A Limpkin was seen flying across a lower field. Luck was with us as the rain let-up a bit, and Michael found a female Ridgway’s Hawk (right) sitting on a favorite perch. She flew across a field and landed in a cecropia tree, then returned back to her original position. Then the male flew in, calling as he approached her. They sound very similar to Red-shouldered Hawks and even look a bit like them. I thought they were going to mate, but not this time. The skies darkened and we got back to the lodge before the rain turned torrential.
We were delighted to have seen this extremely rare and endangered raptor with relative ease (rain aside), the last of 32 avian endemics found during our week-long birding trip in the country. We look forward to guiding visitors on a new Wildside Nature Tours Endemics Tour of the Dominican Republic.
www.WildsideNatureTours.com © Adrian Binns 2013