Sunday, January 25, 2015

Birding the Dominican Republic with the Carolina Bird Club

Natalia Ocampo-Penuela and I led a group of 10 brave birders from the Carolina Bird Club from the rugged mountains to the beautiful beaches of the Dominican Republic on a quest to see as many as possible of the 31 Hispaniola endemics in a jam-packed six-day tour.

Our first morning we birded the Santo Domingo Botanical Garden, which makes for fantastic birding because 30% of it consists of old growth forest, and it’s just a short taxi ride from the city’s colonial zone.  We had our first endemic species here including the ubiquitous and abundant Palm Chat.  This bird, the only member of Dulidae, is, like Sunbittern and Hoatzin, highly sought after by world bird family listers (yes, they exist).  But many a birder has been disillusioned by how quickly they are found and then become tiresome—a trash bird!

The ever-present Palm Chat (endemic), Santo Domingo

While sifting through Palm Chat flocks we picked up 9 wintering warbler species and a few more endemics: the handsome Hispaniolan Woodpecker, the maniacal Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, and the Black-crowned Palm-Tanager, though I prefer its local name, ‘Cuatro Ojos’ (four eyes—easier for those, like Keith, who get confuse this long name with odd permutations of the many other palm-named endemic birds).  

Hispaniolan Woodpecker, photo by David Smith
The important targets at the gardens were the threatened West-Indian Whistling Duck and the endemic Hispaniolan Parakeet, which while widespread, is most easily seen in more urban areas where it doesn’t disappear into the foliage.  The ducks were right where they were supposed to be along the stream and the parakeets welcomed us to the garden by flying raucous circles over our heads while we ate our picnic breakfast outside the gate.   

Hispaniolan Parakeets, Santo Domingo
Check and check!

West-Indian Whistling-Duck (threatened Caribbean endemic), Santo Domingo

After a lunch stop for traditional food, we headed west to the Sierra de Bahoruco, the gold mine for Hispaniolan endemics.   

our intrepid group
Our timing was perfect as we were to arrive the day after the local Christmas Bird Count and so would have fresh intelligence on precise locations for key species.  We were happily waylaid in the town of Puerto Escondido where James managed to spot a Hispaniolan Oriole perched on a street corner tree from the car (yes, while it was moving!).  This endemic species isn’t endangered, but wanders widely and is difficult to target.  I had missed this species on my last trip to the DR and despite diligent searching, parties missed this bird on the Cristmas Bird Count, so not only did we knock out an important endemic, but also contributed a count week bird!  

Hispaniolan Oriole (endemic), Puerto Escondido

We made it to Villa Barrancoli just before dusk, right on time to try for the near-threatened and endemic Least Pauraque (or ‘Least Poorwill’).  Ivan, the local guide who accompanied us for the whole tour, had a spot where one would reliably come in to tape.  As if trained, it fluttered in over heads like a very large moth.  Unfortunately it lit on a tree branch out of view and then eventually flew off without us getting a good view of it sitting.  The next night it would prove to be more cooperative.  One nocturnal endemic down, two to go!

The next morning we set off at 4 am in order to get in some high elevation night birding and reach a crucial spot in the Zapoten Sector of the national park by dawn.  On the way up we had great luck with Hispaniolan Nightjars (nocturnal endemic #2 in the bag!), but the Ashy-faced Owl just called once and then zipped past.  I managed to shine my light at the silhouette, but after it had passed I began to wonder if it hadn’t been a figment of my imagination.  Chandra meanwhile had wandered down the road looking for some privacy and happened to glance up at an Ashy-faced Owl, illuminated by flashlight, looming above her.  Pro tip: for difficult birds, pants around the ankles always brings good luck.  For the rest of us, however this was cause for some concern.  A recent storm had washed out the road to Ivan’s most reliable owl spot that we had hoped to visit later in the tour.  The first two nocturnal endemics came so easily, but missing the owl in Zapoten meant we would have to come up with a new plan for this bird later on.  

In the meantime we had lots of other endemics to find on the mountain.  We made it to La Selle corner with plenty of time to spare before dawn after a tortuous 2 hours of rough driving over a steep boulder-strewn road.  In the twilight I could see a large dark thrush feeding in the road—a La Selle Thrush!  I motioned the group to come over and get into position and then doubled back down the road to the vehicles to collect my scope.  As I walked back up, scope in hand I realized I was flushing a bird up the road ahead of me.  Another thrush!  I carefully set my scope down to have a look. Amazingly, the La Selle Thrush turned around and began walking up to me.  The light was still too dim for photos but I followed the bird until it filled my scope field—a crippling view.  This endangered and endemic species is highly local with this spot representing the only opportunity to see it on the tour.   After it backed off I thought to try to walk it back towards the rest of the group, but rather than round the bend, it flew up into a shrub in order to double back around me.  Natalia emerged in its place exasperated that I had just missed a Bicknell’s Thrush wander up to within kicking distance of the group.  When I mentioned my run-in with the La Selle, her exasperation deepened.  The dark bird I had first spotted had materialized into a Red-legged Thrush, a nice Caribbean endemic, but not the one we needed here.   Luckily after re-positioning the group the La Selle returned to feed on the road near the vehicles.  Crisis averted!  I would never have made it home alive if I had been the only one to see this bird.  

The rest of the morning in Zapoten went swimmingly as we ticked endemics of our lists like Einstein taking a multiple choice algebra test.  Hispaniolan Spindalis, Antillean Piculet, Green-tailed Warbler (or better “Green-tailed Ground-Tanager” according to recent genetic evidence), Hispaniolan Trogon, Hispaniolan Pewee, Narrow-billed Tody, Antillean Siskin, Hispaniolan Emerald and even the vulnerable Golden Swallow (missed on the Christmas Bird Count) all cooperated nicely.   

Narrow-billed Tody, photo by David Smith
looking for endemics in the Zapoten Sector of Sierra de Bahoruco
The vulnerable White-winged Warbler (or “Hispaniolan Highland-Tanager”) took a little bit more work, but our patience was tested most by the Western Chat-Tanager a vulnerable skulker that eventually popped up long enough to give most satisfactory views.  

White-winged Warbler (threatened Hispaniolan endemic), Zapoten

On our way down the mountain we caught up with a noisy flock of Hispaniolan Parrots (another endemic!) with some Olive-throated Parakeets mixed in.  We also found a friendly Loggerhead Kingbird (Caribbean endemic; endemic subspecies).  

Loggerhead Kingbird (Hispaniolan endemic subspecies), Sierra de Bahoruco
By the time we made it back to camp it was nearly 7 pm and I got a tongue-lashing from our host from Tody Tours, Kate Wallace, for “making” the group bird too hard and too long.  It had been a 15-hour day and I began to feel a bit guilty…but then I looked around and saw everybody marching into the woods with Ivan eager for another crack at the Least Pauraque.  What a hardcore group!

The next morning we were up early to stalk the endemic and endangered White-fronted Quail-Dove.  Normally this bird, like most quail-doves, is next-to-impossible to target, especially with a large group.  But we had an ace-in-the-hole: Maria-Isabel, a local field biologist had stumbled upon two (2!) very close to camp on the Christmas Bird Count.  She led us down the Rabo de Gato trail and we stalked as quietly as a herd of hominids can be.  People began glimpsing Quail-Doves through the underbrush and everybody clamored to try to get views.  But these all proved to be Key West Quail-Doves—not a bad false alarm! When we reached the lagoon other bird life began to steal our attention: Least Grebes, Lousiana Waterthrushes and Scaly-naped Pigeons.   

Juvie Least Grebe

Then Natalia spotted a Quail-Dove with a white forehead  on the path just ahead of the group.  This was the bird!  We managed to get scopes oriented and all got great views…except for poor Jeff (and an attendant Ann), who was sick in bed.  

As we returned from a smashingly successful Quail-Dove hunt, picking up the endemic and vulnerable White-necked Crow, the endemic Broad-billed Tody and near-threatened, Caribbean-endemic Plain Pigeon, I began to worry about Jeff.  What if he had Chikungunya?  This mosquito-borne disease had recently reached the Caribbean from Africa and spread like wildfire, with some half a million confirmed cases in the DR alone.  Fear of Chikungunya had nearly scuttled the trip entirely before it began, but I had convinced everyone that by January the disease would have reached host-saturation and become a non-issue.  Only after legal counsel, extra release forms and an almost-complete roster turnover was the trip allowed to proceed. Now poor Jeff might be suffering because of my hubris.  All were much relieved when we returned to find he had made a complete recovery. Another crisis averted and Chikungunya became the running joke of the trip.  

“Let’s stay away from that putrid ditch, it looks like good Chikunguny habitat.”   

“Yeah of course you can borrow some bug spray, but only if you thank me later from saving you from Chikungunya.”

And there were extensive debates on proper pronunciation; I don’t think any two people said it the same way.  

We spent the rest of our morning (and then some) searching for the elusive Bay-breasted Cuckoo, an endangered endemic prized for the alleged magical properties of its meat (akin to shark fin, sea cucumber, rhino horn, etc.).  Where it persists it is terribly elusive and wary of people, blending into the dense canopy and remaining silent.  We were told of birders who spent 3 days searching unsuccessfully and researchers who lived for months in appropriate habitat without finding one.  We spent a solid 3 hours searching diligently through the dry forest territories of two known pairs.  At one point Ron shouted “there it is!”  But nobody else was able to get a view of the cuckoo he had seen.  And given that Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoos are also in the area we couldn’t confidently add this bird to the trip list.  There’s always one that gets away and this proved to be our big miss of the tour.  We were consoled by cooperative endemic Flat-billed Vireos and a steady dose of Stolid Flycatchers, an endemic subspecies, but otherwise an unremarkable Myiarchus. 
Another spot of consoling news came from Ivan who had gleaned some intelligence from a colleague of another site on our route to try for not only the Ashy-faced Owl, but also Stygian Owl, a very rare and hard to find endemic subspecies to Hispaniola.  We juggled the itinerary a bit to accommodate some nocturnal birding in the vicinity of Pedernales and set off for our beachside hotel in Barahona.  

We woke up early again the following morning to visit a beautiful cloud forest above Barahona called Cachote.  Here we found Eastern Chat-Tanagers to be mercifully common and conspicuous.  Rufous-throated Solitaires were calling everywhere, but again they were tough to get eyes on.  Some of the group were getting glimpses of one through dense canopy.  When I finally got it in my binoculars out came the plea for a laser pointer to help others locate the bird.  I shot the laser into the general area of where I thought the bird was, but inadvertently scored a headshot and it exploded into a million pieces never to be seen again.  The perils of laser pointer use!  

Black-faced Grassquit (no laser pointer required), Cachote
Eventually we had to give up on getting better views of solitaires and Greater Antillean Elaenias to start the long drive to Pedernales in the southwestern corner of the DR.  At our hotel we encountered bad news: there was no sign of Ivan’s local contact, Nicolas, who we were hoping would show us the owls that night.  But we had little time to worry with crossbills and crows to track down in the pine forests of on the southern side of Sierra de Bahoruco.  

The endangered and endemic Hispaniolan Crossbills turned out to be pleasantly easy.  A water drip maintained by the local park warden had reportedly attracted a mega flock of several dozen earlier in the day.  What a sight that would have been given that the total population of the species is estimated at 400 to 2300! 

Hispaniolan Crossbills (endangered endemic), Sierra de Bahoruco
We were happy to gaze at the confiding group of 8 that came to drink shortly after our arrival.   

The near-threatened Hispaniolan Palm Crows required a bit more patience.  We had caught glimpses of them flying across the road as we drove up to the national park kiosk and had heard them calling, but by the time the crossbill afterglow had subsided there was no sign of crows at all.  We waited and waited and waited.  Flocks of Hispaniolan Parakeets and Hispaniolan Parrots flew around raucously and haphazardly.  We amused ourselves by studying the few warblers in the area, including a Black-throated Green and a Yellow-rumped Warbler, our 15th and final North American warbler species of the trip (counting resident Pine and Yellow Warbler subspecies).   

Things got a bit silly while waiting for the Palm Crows to show
We waited some more.  Finally at 6:30, when the sun had dropped below the horizon and we were telling bird stories to take the edge off the collective nervousness, I heard something promising.  

“SHH!  Listen!”

Distant caws grew louder and louder and louder and the Palm Crow flock came right over us.  They hopped through the trees and strutted around the shelter we had just moments before had been sitting under.  Second endemic crow species down!  At this point we had reached 28 Hispaniola endemics; more than enough to go home happy.

But then more good news arrived: Ivan had finally made contact with Nicolas, who had been waylaid by some sort of emergency involving the solenodons (endemic, endangered, giant shrew-like mammals) he studies.  While we waited for Nicolas to make his way up the mountain to meet us we were treated to some of the most phenomenal stargazing we’ve ever experienced.  

Within 10-minutes of Nicolas’ arrival we had a Stygian Owl posing in a spotlight for us.  

Stygian Owl (Hispaniolan endemic subspecies), Sierra de Bahoruco

What a bonus bird!

We continued down the mountain trying a few places for the Ashy-faced Owl.  We were able to call in a pair which circled over our heads repeatedly, but we were under strict instructions not to shine lights until a bird perched.  But they just wouldn’t land!  We watched them fly by again and again tantalizingly close and full-moon-lit, but after every pass they would drift out of sight.  We hadn’t eaten dinner yet and after a couple hours of frustration it was 10 pm we simply had to call it a night in order to eat and sleep.  

The seafood was delicious, but we were delirious with exhaustion after what ended up being a 19 hour day.  We took it easy the next morning to give ourselves a chance to recover before a long day of driving all the way back to Santo Domingo.  

We broke up the drive with a few stops at coastal wetlands along the route to give the trip list a boost.  Highlights were Least Bitterns, Clapper Rails and a Roseate Spoonbill at the Cabo Rojo Wetlands; and  distant American Flamingos at Laguna de Oviedo.   

Greater Yellowlegs, Cabo Rojo Wetland
We were all surprised to see flocks of uncountable hundreds of distant American Wigeon; I had no idea they migrated this far south in such numbers.  

A traffic jam outside Santo Domingo delayed our arrival and nearly scuttled our last dinner of the trip.  Fortunately we were able to persuade the kitchen staff to stay late and feed us.

Our final morning was reserved for chasing the critically-endangered and endemic Ridgway’s Hawk.  This was meant to be the cherry on top of the trip’s excellent birding.  During the breeding season this bird is essentially a slam dunk since locals know where it nests, but apparently Ridgway’s Hawks don’t breed in January, so we had some work to do.  Timoteo, a local guide, led us to several spots where they can be seen, but we weren’t having any luck.  The sky here seemed to be filled with Turkey Vultures and White-necked Crows that caused the occasional false alarm and a perched Red-tailed Hawk nearly gave have the group coronary infarctions.  We soldiered on, accumulating auxiliary guides as we wound our way through rural communities of perplexed residents.  Eventually we left the cars and scrambled up a treacherous limestone outcrop to a possible nesting area.  Chandra and Ann had mid-afternoon flights and we reached the point where we had to send them off with a driver toward the airport.  The rest of the group would soon be in a similar predicament and we were running out of time.   

Then there were some shouts amount the locals and Natalia finally spotted one chasing a vulture overhead.  Three more appeared among a growing vulture kettle.  The hawks circled above us calling and then one swooped around and perched in a distant palm giving us great scope views of both sides.  Success!  

group scoping a distant Ridgway's Hawk
for some reason I left my digiscoping camera in the car; Ridway's Hawk (critically endangered endemic), Los Limones
Fortunately news reached Chandra and Ann before they loaded into the car and they were able to spot one of the hawks overhead (thankfully I had delayed their departure by having the key to locked car filled with their luggage in my pocket).

Thus, magically, endemic number 30 had appeared at the buzzer. 

We finished with 121 species including an additional 18 endemic subspecies and 16 species endemic to the West Indies but findable on other islands.  

What a trip and what a group!  Birding Hispaniola is no easy task.  There’s lots of driving involved, much of it through anarchic traffic or up brutally rough roads.  Yet everybody maintained positive attitudes and found enjoyment in each meal and moment of birding.  Missing the Cua leaves a sting.  And everybody would have preferred to get a better look at the Ashy-faced Owl. But given the number of logistical things that can go wrong and the number of challenging, erratic, skulking, scarce and/or nocturnal species on the target list, 30 endemics is a far better outcome than I had expected.

The one downside of cleaning up targets so nicely is that it gives little reason to return to such a beautiful country filled with friendly helpful people.  Perhaps the local races of Short-eared Owl and Grasshopper Sparrow will get split out one day and give us an excuse to return.  

I cannot say enough nice things about Ivan, who must be the best bird guide the country has to offer.

Sadly the spillover of deforestation from Haiti has only gotten worse since my visit three years ago.  Apparently niche bird tourism isn’t making a big enough economic impact to attract any political attention to the plight of forests in the Sierra de Bahoruco, but that’s a story for another time.  

Additional notes:
Where there used to be simply a “Chat Tanager” on Hispaniola, the AOU currently recognizes Eastern and Western species. The existence of two additional subspecies further muddies this binary classification. 

Limpkins are everywhere in the DR.  We saw one fraternizing with gallinules along a stream bank, another stalking through the grass after a cow like a cattle egret, and most bizarrely, while trying for Ashy-faced Owl, we heard one calling its head off in transitional mountain forest at roughly 2000 meters elevation. 
Limpkin; photo by David Smith


  1. Great article, Scott! Thanks for the pictures along with the text.
    Thanks for accommodating this "non-birder"! I can't call myself a "newbie" after that magnificent tour you and Natalia put together.
    Can't wait for the next one. Ann Jenkins

  2. A great armchair birding adventure for me. If only I had the time to go to such eclectic places like Hispanola.

  3. hah, I've been living for few years but have no idea about birds here....