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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC  --  North Coast


10 - 24 November 2008


by Steve Baines


QUALITY NOT QUANTITY


After a European break to Southern Spain last year it was decided that a more exotic family holiday was due for 2008. I have always fancied the Dominican Republic as a destination and the family were up for it so we booked for 2 weeks all inclusive at the Clubhotel Riu Merengue about 15 km north west of Puerto Plata near Bahia Maimon.

 

OK I know all the best birding hot spots are in the South West of the island, especially if you are seeking all the endemics, but hey it was primarily a family holiday and I wanted a Riu hotel to base myself in. We had used the Riu chain of hotels in Mexico and found them excellent value for money. The Riu Merengue didn’t disappoint.

 

We flew from Gatwick arriving at Puerto Plata airport at approx 5pm. A little game of ‘guess the first bird seen’ was mentally played by my self. I thought maybe Greater Antillean Grackle or something equally exotic or maybe even House Sparrow! But of course I was wrong. Apart from lots of un-identifiable white type Egrets seen flying below the aircraft on its approach to land, the first bird seen was actually Antillean Palm-Swift.   Large numbers were hawking over the airport area, so first lifer nice and easy. I knew I wasn’t going to get many lifers on this trip but I looked forward to picking up some pretty decent birds during my stay. As it happens I picked up some bloody brilliant birds and had a fabulous 2 weeks early morning and early evening birding in and around the Bahia Maimon area. 

 

Also seen whilst waiting on the transfer bus were Northern Mockingbird and the ubiquitous Cattle Egret.

 

Darkness falls pretty quickly in The DR and it was dark by the time we reached the hotel, 40 minutes later. Greeted with cold fresh fruit juices and our room key we headed for our allocated room to quickly unpack, shower and get some food. 

 

I’d e-mailed the hotel a couple of weeks earlier to request a room with a sea or mountain view (in fact anywhere but overlooking the pool!) I explained I was a birder and retiring to my balcony in the afternoon to do some quiet birding, away from the madding crowd, is a pre requisite to my holiday. I was disappointed to find I got neither!   However the balcony did overlook some fabulous tropical gardens that turned out to be a prime birding location for birding from the balcony with a species list of 17 including delights such as Red-legged Thrush, Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, Zenaida Dove and various American wood-warblers. My balcony list is attached at the end of this report. 

                       

11th Nov – Complex Recce
 

Up at first light and with no idea where to go I explored the hotel complex. The whole complex is made up of three hotels the Riu Mambo, Merengue and Bachata. Each hotel is on the beach and has extensive gardens that incorporate tropical gardens, coast, mangroves and wooded areas. These varying habitats were great for a variety of birds.

   

Resort Gardens

 

First bird of the day was a cracking Red-legged Thrush. An absolute stunner of a bird and one of my target species. Little did I know at the time that it would quickly become relegated to a ‘trash’ bird (a horrible euphemism that I don’t really like using) along with the next bird encountered, Hispaniolan Woodpecker. Again a gorgeous looking bird but so numerous that I ashamedly started to overlook them after the first day.

 
As the morning grew so did my tally with anticipated goodies such as Bananaquit, Greater Antillean Grackle, Grey Kingbird and the stars of the morning, White-crowned Pigeon and Hispaniolan Lizard-CuckooIn the afternoon another quick bimble produced a couple of American wood-warblers in the shape of Cape May Warbler and Prairie Warbler. Also seen was the first Palmchat of the holiday. (Dominican Republic’s special endemic, only found on the island and no where else in the world, and unfortunately another bird soon to destined for the ‘trash’ bird category!) and American Kestrel.


12th Nov – further a field


After sussing out the resort areas it was time to venture further a field off complex. I walked a couple of miles to the
village of Maimon. To those of you who think you can’t go off complex in the Dominican Republic then think again. I had no problems. The Dominicans are a really friendly people and I never once felt unsafe or felt I needed to be cautious.  Anyway, I was pointed in the direction of what one of the locals optimistically referred to as a lake. It was in fact a mosquito ridden mangrove swamp that turned out to be great for birds. It was at the side of a track that held American wood-warblers including Common Yellowthroat (that were indeed common), Ovenbird and Magnolia Warbler. The actual swamp itself held Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron and Moorhen!
 

A couple of Northern Rough-winged Swallow flew overhead and the star bird of the morning was Antillean Mango showing really well along the track.   

 

I quickly decided that this walk was going to be my local patch for the duration and deserved to be done at least once a day as it obviously had potential. Later that afternoon I did a return visit with the swamp producing a cracking West Indian Whistling-Duck roosting on a low branch, a Least Grebe in one of the dykes and, along the track, a cracking Black-crowned Palm-Tanager to finish things off. Brilliant stuff.   

 

When I got back to the room my wife, Claire, gripped me off (ok no sniggering, you birders know what I mean!) by telling me that a small brown Dove had been down to feed in front of the balcony. After going through the field guide she eventually identified Zenaida Dove. A target bird of mine that I hadn’t seen yet!

 

13th Nov


I decided to spend the early morning birding from the balcony. Fortunately the Zenaida Dove, seen by Claire, visited again and indeed visited everyday for the rest of the holiday.


Sunbathing beckoned late morning and so birding was confined to around the pool. Turkey Vulture and American Kestrel overhead were seen along with the ever present Antillean Palm-Swifts and another cracking Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo. Bananaquits flitted between the sun beds drinking from people’s sugary fruit drinks. My beer didn’t seem to take their fancy though!

 

In the afternoon I decided to walk around the coast to Maimon bay. There was a prominent headland that looked promising for a bit of sea watching. I set up my scope and saw absolutely sod all! No gulls, no terns, nothing. I turned the scope inland and picked up a couple of West Indian Whistling-Ducks flying low over what I can only assume was my mangrove swamp area. I also picked up the first of many Snowy and Great White Egrets.

 

New bird from the balcony was Nutmeg Mannikin (aka Scaly-breasted Munia).  New birds on my afternoon walk around my local patch were both Yellow-faced and Black-faced Grassquit in the trackside weeds.

 

14th Nov


I had organised a trip up Mt Isabel de Torres this morning just to see if I could pick up some different species away from the coast. It wasn’t as productive as I had hoped as the mountain trails were pretty steep so I spent most of my time looking down at my feet to make sure I didn’t go arse over whatever, rather than in the trees.

New birds did include Hispaniolan Oriole near the cable car entrance, Red-tailed Hawk and Plain Pigeon. A Greater Antillean Eleana was the pick of the bunch. The cable car ride was an experience!

Back at the hotel pool a Magnificent Frigatebird soared high over.


15th Nov


This was a sunbathing day. Nothing to report apart from the usual suspects, Red-legged Thrush, Grackle, Palm-Swift, Bananaquit et al. Another Magnificent Frigatebird circling quite low over the pool area was nice. 
I decided to extend my local patch walk to beyond Maimon village and onto the estuary of the Maimon bay.  Lots of Snowy and Great White Egrets and a couple of Spotted Sandpipers joined the country list. A couple of Green Heron also showed. 

 

Back at the balcony I was gripped off again by Claire telling me a magpie type bird, with a curved beak, had landed in a palm outside the room. Ok for magpie type bird read Cuckoo type. It could have been a Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo but their beak only curves at the tip. Possible Black billed or Yellow-billed Cuckoo? I guess I’ll never know as unlike the Zenaida Dove, it never re appeared. I told Claire that I didn’t want to hear of anymore birds she sees while she was sipping fruit cocktails whilst I was out slogging away in 90 degree heat!

 

16th Nov


A glutton for punishment I did another early morning sea watch from the Bachata headland. Still no gulls, but a steady flow of Royal Terns was new and a scope around the bay produced a Belted Kingfisher, so two more were added to the country list.

 

17th Nov 


Cracking start to the day as White-crowned Pigeon was added to the balcony list along with a superb Cape May Warbler feeding a couple of feet away!

 

In the morning we all went on a horse riding trek through the foothills. I took the ‘bins although riding a horse is not conducive of good birding through binoculars! Lots of birds were seen although few were identified. Those positively identified from horse back included White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani and a couple of superb Hispaniolan Emeralds.

After a couple of hours riding we stopped for a 30 minute drink break. A walk around the area proved the worth of bringing my ‘bins. Cracking birds included three Vervain Hummingbirds together on the same branch, Hispaniolan Oriole and Northern Mockingbird. The trek eventually lasted about 4 hours through some fantastic countryside and gorgeous scenery.

18th Nov


The day started with another visit from a Cape May Warbler from the balcony along with Nutmeg Mannikin. 

 

This morning was geared to a mornings birding the Parque Nacional Laguna Cabarette to get some more birds of the foothills. I was joined by Wendy, a fellow birder who I’d met previously on my rounds. Wendy was a god send when communicating with the locals as she spoke fluent Spanish. After about an hours drive we arrived at the area locally known as El Choco, Cabarette.

 

We hiked along a few tracks and picked up birds such as Yellow-faced Grassquit, Smooth-billed Ani, both male and female American Redstart and Black-crowned Palm-TanagerEventually coming across some prime warbler habitat we managed to see Palm, Prairie, and Black-and-White Warblers and Ovenbird. Stolid Flycatcher, another lifer for me was also seen along with Grey Kingbird. Great results after a hard mornings slog. Moving on we then encountered both Mangrove Cuckoo and Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo.

 

After a few hours we moved onto the Cabarette River where we took a small boat down to the coast. Not exactly teeming with birds we did manage Green Heron, Ani, Antillean Mango, Spotted Sandpiper, another Lizard-Cuckoo and, at the coast, Sanderling.


Back at the hotel and back on the balcony where a cold beer awaited (thanks Claire) the usual was seen. Zenaida Dove, Palmchat, Hispaniolan Woodpecker et al. I promised Wendy that if she joined me on the balcony the next morning then she would get Cape May Warbler.


19th Nov


Another cracking start to the day from the balcony, with Wendy, producing Magnolia, Prairie and Cape May Warbler.
White-crowned Pigeon also showed along with the usual crew.

 

After yesterdays extended excursion a day on the beach was the itinerary of the day. ‘Bins always at hand I managed to pick up Spotted Sandpiper, American Herring Gull (first and only gull of the trip!) Great White Egret, Royal Tern and four flyby Blue-winged Teal. 30 + Turkey Vultures circling together was a spectacle too.

 

In the afternoon rain stopped play for the first time this holiday. Retiring to the balcony American wood-warblers were still in evidence. It rained for the rest of the afternoon which, to be honest, was welcome relief to the usual hot temperatures.


20th Nov 


No birding today as a full day out at Ocean World with ‘bins not an option.
Fed and swam with sharks and stingrays. Great fun. I still managed to get my best view of a Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo as it perch out in the open, not going anywhere.

 

21st Nov 


Met up with Wendy at first light for what would be a memorable walk around the local patch. Good numbers of Snowy and Great White Egrets were present along with Spotted Sandpiper and a Semipalmated Plover. An Osprey was also seen around the bay. Prairie Warbler, Belted Kingfisher and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron also showed. After the walk Wendy decided to head back to the hotel, I decided to have another turn around the patch.


It wasn’t long before I came across a small party of wood-warblers. A bit of pishing brought out Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler and Cape May Warbler. What also appeared was a stonking Broad-billed Tody. I had cracking views of this gem of a bird. Absolutely fantastic and most definitely unexpected, sorry Wendy!

 

The walk back to the complex also gave me Zenaida Dove, White-crowned Pigeon and a smart Cape May Warbler catching insects, flycatcher like, about a foot above my head. What a morning.  


Palm Warbler was a new balcony bird, in the afternoon, as was a striking Yellow-throated Warbler. According to the guide book this bird should be at higher elevations at this time of the year. As this is an unmistakable bird and impossible to confuse with any other Dendroica warbler I guess it was a late arriving migrant.

 

An afternoon walk around the patch, I managed to pish out Common Yellowthroat, Ovenbird and the Broad-billed Tody again!

 

22nd Nov


The morning walk didn’t produce anything new but Belted Kingfisher was again present around the swamp.

Yellow-throated Warbler was again present from the balcony in the early afternoon, showing really well along with Cape May and Prairie Warbler. A Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo also went through.

 

23rd Nov


The last patch walk of the holiday and what a fitting end. I picked up three new birds for the country list including a lifer. First off was a Merlin perched in the hotel grounds. Second new bird was Tricoloured Heron in the company of a Great White Egret around some flooded fields near the bay. Finally, superb views of
Louisiana Waterthrush were seen. A few days earlier Wendy and I had discussed the possibility of seeing this species as the habitat was perfect. We concluded that we were more likely to see Northern Waterthrush as the Louisiana should have passed through and moved on to higher elevations by now.

 

The bird I saw certainly coincided with the Yellow-throated Warbler of the past few days; another supposed early arriving migrant still present at sea level. Could Hurricane Paloma from a couple of weeks ago kept migrants from the USA at bay for a while and delayed migration?  Either way I had excellent views of the Waterthrush, purposely making notes of all the pertinent details to distinguish it from Northern (which I have seen in the states.)

Other birds seen include Belted Kingfisher, Common Ground-Dove, Green Heron and Common Yellowthroat.

 

The rest of the day was spent topping up the tan although two Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoos and Cape May Warbler were seen.

 

Conclusion

 

I ended up with a total of 62 species seen, 21 being lifers. 17 birds species were seen from my hotel room balcony. As alluded to in the title of this report it was a case of quality birds as opposed to quantity, as I was well aware of before arriving on holiday. 

 

For a totally relaxing, easy going, chilled out bit of Caribbean birding the North coast of the Dominican Republic was perfect and thoroughly recommended. No stress, no great distances to travel and a great family holiday destination, what more could you ask for? 

 

My e-mail address is snbaines@blueyonder.co.uk if anyone wants any more info.

 

 

Below is my trip list, lifers in bold. B denotes also seen from balcony.

 

Least Grebe

 

Magnificent Frigatebird

 

Cattle Egret

 

Great White Egret

 

Tricoloured Heron

 

Snowy Egret

B

Green Heron

 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

B

West Indian Whistling-Duck

 

Turkey Vulture

 

Osprey

 

Red-tailed Hawk

 

American Kestrel

 

Merlin

 

(Common) Moorhen

 

Blue-winged Teal

 

Semipalmated Plover

 

Spotted Sandpiper

 

Sanderling

 

American Herring Gull

 

Royal Tern

 

White-crowned Pigeon

B

Plain Pigeon

 

Mourning Dove

 

Zenaida Dove

B

White-winged Dove

 

Common Ground-Dove

 

Mangrove Cuckoo

 

Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo

B

Smooth-billed Ani

 

Antillean Palm-Swift

B

Antillean Mango

 

Hispaniolan Emerald

 

Vervain Hummingbird

 

Belted Kingfisher

 

Broad-billed Tody

 

Hispaniolan Woodpecker

B

Grey Kingbird

 

Stolid Flycatcher

 

(Greater) Antillean Elaenia

 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

 

Palmchat

B

(Northern) Mockingbird

B

Red-legged Thrush

B

Black-and-White Warbler

 

Yellow-throated Warbler

B

Prairie Warbler

B

Palm Warbler

B

Cape May Warbler

B

Magnolia Warbler

B

American Redstart

 

Common Yellowthroat

 

Ovenbird

 

Louisiana Waterthrush

 

Hispaniolan Oriole

 

Greater Antillean Grackle

 

Yellow-faced Grassquit

 

Black-faced Grassquit

 

Black-crowned Palm-Tanager

 

Bananaquit

B

Nutmeg Mannikin

B

House Sparrow

 

 

Steve Baines
snbaines@blueyonder.co.uk


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