Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Birding Haiti

Haiti is no place for tourists of any kind let alone birders.  The environmentally-minded among us are probably familiar with the country's reputation for degraded landscapes and that only 1% of forest cover remains.  But set foot in its capital and it becomes intimately clear that Haiti has far more urgent issues that need addressing before there's any hope of salvaging what remains of its biodiversity or restoring its ecosystems.

Port au Prince is essentially a refugee camp of 3 million people.  There is no road maintenance, no garbage collection, no water system, no sewer.  Walking the streets among the throngs is like participating in the obstacle-course-based TV game show Wipeout except that the hazards are rubble piles, heaps of garbage, and speeding motorbikes; and the sludgy water below just might harbor Cholera.  It's no wonder that aid workers don't set foot on the streets and pass their time safely cloistered within their Landcruisers.

There is subsistence agriculture in rural areas, but Haiti is a net importer of food, which comes mainly in the form of handouts from NGOs and foreign governments. Perversely this encourages more people to flock to the already crowded capital hoping to get their dole.  Some Haitians are trying to construct more housing (in the popular architectural style of unpainted cinder block), but the uncertainty about property ownership, multiple layers of corrupt politicians, and the fact that squatters have just about every square meter of ground inhabited snarls much of the effort to rebuild.

As far as I can tell there are no public buildings and few finished structures of any kind.  The National Palace is still a wreck two years after the earthquake.
The National Palace
The adjacent central square, the largest and possibly only remaining public space, was a tent-ville until a few months ago when the inhabitants were forced out to who knows where.

But you didn't come here to read about humanitarian and political disasters.  I'll get to the birds shortly. First I just have to say the Haitians I met were so incredibly friendly and seemingly happy despite the state of their country.  Playing basketball, trekking pants zipped in half, in front of a paying crowd of several hundred in Cite Soleil (per Wikipedia: "...generally regarded as one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the Western Hemisphere...") is an experience I'll never forget.
Ballin' in Cite Soleil
And amazingly I never witnessed violence, or even anger (except once over a game of dominos).  I was panhandled less frequently in Port au Prince than I usually am wandering around Durham. 

Now onto birds...

Historically Haiti was home to all of Hispaniola's 31 endemic species, but in reality at least a few of these have probably been extirpated. And bird life in general among the scattered urban trees around the capital is rather sparse.  Notable exceptions were a pair of "Pajaros Bobo" or Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoos, an endemic, and a nest colony of Village Weavers, an introduced species from Africa. 

I was determined to reach National Parc La Visite, where ornithological groups from Cornell and Vermont had recently visited to study Black-capped Petrels and Bicknell's Thrushes.  It is the wrong time of year to see either of these species, but supposedly the park contained remnant, albeit dwindling fragments of broadleaf vegetation that harbor some of the rare and endangered endemics.

A pair of Hatian taptaps, the popular mode of transport
To get there we crammed into the safest most efficient form of Haitian transportation, the "taptap" (see above). After lurching and bouncing for some four hours up a mountainside our truck could go no further because of poor road conditions, so we disembarked and hiked another four-plus hours passing women with impossibly heavy loads balanced atop their heads. 
Haitian deforestation

The upside of hiking in the Haitian mountains is the lack of trees means there is always a fabulous view.  A few birds were around making use of what cliff-side shrubs remained and the odd tree that had been spared.  Some were familiar, such as Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, probably not too troubled by all the open space.  Others were more exciting, such as Black face Grassquit,
Black-faced Grassquit
and a couple endemics: the very common Hispaniolan Woodpecker
Hispaniolan Woodpecker

and Black-crowned Palm-Tanager.
Black-crowned Palm-Tanager
 Finally we reached a plateau and my first Haitian forest.
Forest of Hispaniolan Pine
Of course it was all pines.  Broadleaf vegetation is cut for charcoal wherever it can be found and heavy grazing pressure ensures that none can regrow.  But the fresh air and flowers were a welcome change from the sights and smells of garbage and motorbikes that prevade and permeate Port au Prince.

Best of all, the hike through the pines yielded flocks of endemic and threatened Hispaniolan Palm Crows and the endemic and endangered Hispaniolan Crossbill.  I also found the endemic Hispaniolan Emerald flitting along a stream.

We hiked through the pines to an inn (the only one around) where we would stay the night.  The surrounding gardens were filled with Antillean Siskins (another endemic)
Antillean Siskin
and the hibiscus was popular with an Antillean Mango.

Antillean Mango

We woke up early the next morning and went with a local guide named Wilfred on a hike out into the park.  

a national park?

 Despite being a national park, there were farmsteads and rows of crops.  It made for a charmingly pastoral scene, but not what you expect in a supposedly protected area.

Wilfred took us to a beautiful karst waterfall.
Waterfall at La Visite

Because of the steep ravines along the sides of the stream, some broadleaf shrubs and bushes remained and here the bird life got more exciting. The best bird was a Western Chat-Tanager, an endemic and threatened skulker that Wilfred spotted for me. We also had Red-legged Thrush and a couple more endemics: Narrow-billed Tody
Narrow-billed Tody
 and Hispaniolan Pewee.

Hispaniolan Pewee
On our way back to the inn, I came across an interesting mixed species flock that contained a Greater Antillean Elaenia, a Pine Warbler, which belonged to the endemic resident subspecies, and a Black-and-white Warbler, which was an early migrant and quite a surprise. 

I had hoped to see Haiti's national bird, the endemic Hispaniolan Trogon, as well as the endangered and endemic La Selle Thrush, but these birds are apparently difficult (if not impossible) to find along this stream.  The best dwindling remnants of broadleaf forest in the park were at least a couple hours hike from the inn and we just didn't have the time to go that far.  Ahead of us was a long hike down the other side of the mountain (where I saw 4 Hispaniolan Orioles--another endemic species) followed by a white-knuckle motorcycle ride over treacherous roads and through bustling villages to the city of Jacmel and a seaside hotel.

The words the ornithologists have used to describe the state of the habitat and prospects for maintaining the biodiversity of La Visite as "grim" or "dire." But I almost think that's too generous.  Given the social and political backdrop the term "futile" is probably more fitting.  Perhaps that sounds overly pessimistic, but on the bright side these birds really aren't concerned about political borders and are doing just fine 100 miles to east in the Dominican Republic, right?  I certainly hoped and expected so.  And I couldn't wait to find out.

After a morning playing in the surf of a beach that would have been beautiful were it not for the dense wrack of washed up garbage, we made the pilgrimage back to Port au Prince.  The next morning I got up early to catch the first bus bound for Santo Domingo, eager to escape a nation in the throes of humanitarian catastrophe, speak some Spanish, and search for thrushes and trogons in a greener setting. 

Stay tuned for my next installment on birding the Dominican Republic.  And in the meantime appreciate your access to potable water, a toilet and a nearby park and its birds. 


  1. Dang Scott, you're been busy!

    Absolutely fabulous documentation of so many endemic and beautiful species too. I appreciate the thorough narrative as well. Haiti is a case study for a number of reasons and in a number of contexts, but it's always refreshing to see and hear about the good and beautiful things that persist even amidst such destitution.

    Looking forward to your Dominican Republic report. I always liked to imagine that the Dominican Rep. was a country populated and run entirely by Dominican monks. That's probably not the case, but either way it should be bundles o' fun.


  2. It's only going to get worse in the mountains of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with international mining firms rushing to join the growing Hispaniola Gold Rush + Copper Rush...

    1. Sadly you're right, Nate. My sister-in-law is doing work (though for human rights rather than the environment) on the mining situation in Haiti and was part of a panel discussion/town hall meeting in Port au Prince. I couldn't really follow what was being said (since it was in Kreyol), but she had a pretty testy exchange with the Minister of Mines who was in attendance.

  3. Hello - I came across your post and reposted it to the Haiti Audubon Center facebook page. Glad you got to see some of Haiti's beautiful birds!

    1. Thanks for the re-post, Debbie!

      Incidentally, I just got back from birding trip to Hispaniola. Needless to say that other than a peak across the border in Sierra de Bahoruco, we did not cover the Haiti side of the island.