21-26 March 1999
by Edward Massiah
Day 1/ 21st March - Arrive at Melville Hall airport 10:30. P.M. Visit
Day 2/ 22nd March - A.M. Visit Syndicate. Portsmouth, Fort Shirley area. P.M. Syndicate again.
Day 3/ 23rd March - A.M. Sulphur Springs, Scolt Head. P.M. Trafalgar Falls.
Day 4/ 24th March - A.M. Visit Carib Territory (via Em.Pool). P.M. Sari-sari Falls in south-east.
Day 5/ 25th March - AM. Emerald Pool, shopping. P.M. Syndicate.
Day 6/ 26th March- A.M. Shopping. P.M. Explore north-east prior to 17:30 departure.
(I visited the island with my wife who doesn't mind civilized light birding, and we managed a reasonable compromise between light birding and other activities).
Not without good reason is Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-EEK-a) known as the "Nature Island" of the Caribbean; it is a veritable island paradise. Certainly within the Lesser Antilles, there is no other island that can match it for its sheer abundance of birdlife and the richness and extent of its mountain rainforest. Many regional endemics which are shy or uncommon elsewhere are common and easy to see here making birding highly productive. There are no Shiny Cowbirds (yet) and no mongooses; there is little population pressure, and conservation is taken seriously. Presently there are no direct flights from N.American/Europe and you have to come via St.Lucia, Martinique or Antigua; but a new airstrip is planned. Languages spoken English and Patois. People are welcoming and friendly, apart from the usual hangers-on at some of the popular tourist spots e.g. Trafalgar Falls. (Crime rates are low but expect this to rise in the future--see Banana Section). There are helpful signposts in many places and finding your way around on this island is simplicity itself. If you want trouble-free, relaxing birding then I recommend this wonderful island country. The scenic and hiking opportunities here are endless (Dominica boasts arguably the world's largest Boiling Lake) and in a week you would only scrape the surface. Birds include 2 extraordinary Amazona parrots, the shared Plumbeous Warbler, the shared Blue-headed Hummingbird, and about another dozen species found only in the Lesser Antilles.
Where to go:
With luck most of the L.A. specialities can be seen by just visiting 2 sites: Emerald Pool and Syndicate. Emerald Pool, bordering the Morne Trois Pitons N.P. in the south, is a good location for the elusive Forest Thrush etc. Syndicate in the Northern Forest Reserve (containing the 4747 ft Morne Diablotin - former(?) home of the Black-capped Petrel [Diablotin]) is essential for the 2 parrots. Be prepared for possible repeat visits for the rare Imperial Parrot.
The local currency, the Eastern Caribbean dollar, has a fixed value relating to the US dollar (1US$=EC$2.70). Mystifying to me was that many local shops, restaurants frequently only give between 2.5 to 2.6 for your US, whereas all banks give you 2.67. Local currency can also be obtained from Automatic Tellers with Visacard, but I'm not sure how many of these machines are accessible after closing.
Car Hire prices compare favourably with many of the other English speaking Lesser Antilles. Due to its remote location only a couple of firms have offices at the airport . I had arranged a car through Valley Rent-A-Car Tel: (767) 448-3233 in Roseau, which cost US$41.50/day plus US$7/day Collision Damage Waiver (US$242.50 for the 5 days). This included free pick-up and I was allowed to leave the car at the airport. Consider hiring a jeep if you can afford it (costing about US$5/day more), or if you intend to explore the unpaved N/NE approaches to Morne Diablotin, or want to search for Black-capped Petrels in the south. Otherwise the roads were good/excellent almost without exception, and all sites including Syndicate were easily accessible by ordinary car. Much of the island can also be explored by minibus if absolutely necessary, but I certainly felt much safer driving myself -- some local drivers appear to push it a bit! Sound advice: Hoot your horn frequently on bends, roads are narrow in places. Tourist maps are adequate for the main sites. An Ordnance Survey map can be purchased for EC$40 from the Land & Survey Dept. on Cork Street.
Melville Hall Airport:
A Driving License can be purchased from Immigration for EC$30 and an "Ecotourist Site Pass" which allows access to many spots for only US$10/week. A real bargain. Melville Hall is at the opposite end of the island from Roseau. It costs EC$45 (US$16.66) /person to reach Roseau one-way and takes about 1 hour 20 mins. It is expected in Dominica (as with most islands in the region) that you state where you are staying on your Immigration form when you arrive, even if you change it later.
Depart Barbados promptly at 08:28 on our LIAT flight, stopping briefly in St.Lucia and Martinique; we arrived at Melville Hall at 10:15. By 10:45 we were on our way, winding through rainforest almost all the way to Roseau arriving at 12:00. Mr. Chambers at Valley-Car-Rentals had everything ready and by 12:45 we had found our way to Ma Bass guesthouse in the heart of Roseau. Ma Bass (Mrs. Bass) the owner is a wonderful host and made us feel truly at home. The cost for a Double was US$35/night at this time of year for an ordinary room. We had the larger attic room with a view over the city. It was hot during the day but comfortable, cool and quiet at night There are marginally cheaper guesthouses in Roseau but this place is recommended Tel: (767) 448-2999. During our travels we couldn't help noticing that there were not many visitors on the island (not that we were complaining) and for a little more than we paid you can find some good hotels. We met a Norwegian pair who found a beautiful luxury hotel (The Layou River Hotel), and paid US$60/night for an air-conditioned room, were the only guests, and had the river to themselves. In peak season expect to pay more, but how many other islands in the Eastern Caribbean can give you that? Also highly recommended: D'Auchamps Cottages near Trafalgar Village (767) 448-3386, owned by Sara & Patricia Honychurch.
At 13:35 we set out for the Emerald Pool, arriving at 14:30. They have built a visitors centre, (not yet opened) and the official entrance at present is still from a layby just a 100 metres further. We found it rather quiet in the forest at this time of day, but we had very good views of a male Blue-headed Hummingbird from a lookout. Also Brown Trembler, Black-whiskered Vireo (heard), Caribbean Elaenia (heard), Scaly-breasted Thrashers and a Red-necked Parrot overhead. After leaving Em. Pool, we retraced our steps to the junction and turned left (the road descends to the south-east coast). After a mile or so the forest along the road opened up, with plenty of low trees (including Trumpet Trees, the large leaves with silvery undersides). Rufous-throated Solitaires seemed to be singing everywhere, and from some quite low perches. This is a good place to look for one, but having seen them before I was soon side-tracked by Hilda finding our first Plumbeous Warbler - the first of many.
I was soon taken aback by the numbers of Scaly-breasted Thrashers and other common birds around the area. (It also looked like a good open area for Blue-headed Hummingbird). At 16:30 we made our way home. At one point I was treated to incredibly close views of the common Broad-winged Hawk on wires right next to the road. It did not move when I walked right up to it. By this time I was beginning to realize that I had found an island which really belongs to nature. Birds seem easier to study here than any other island in the Lesser Antilles.
We left Ma Bass at about 05:20 and began the drive up to Syndicate. It's about 1 hour and 10 mins. I had heard that you only needed a morning and you could see everything. The turn-off to Syndicate is well sign-posted and I was happy to find the road had recently been improved to make it into something suitable for ordinary cars. You just continue up the road for several long miles, following sign-posts to the Syndicate Trail- when reached park on the left. There didn't seem to be any parrots flying around the immediate area when we arrived at 06:30 so we entered the forest trail. We soon saw the local (Antillean) House Wren (the Dominican race is distinctly brown underneath, thus distinguishing it from the paler breasted ones in St.Vincent and it is spectacularly different from the long-billed white-breasted ones in St.Lucia).
Close to the entrance a typically perky Lesser Antillean Pewee (obviously much duller on the breast than the St.Lucian form, but otherwise very similar including voice). In the forest we encountered a Red-legged Thrush on the track (later watched singing from a low perch) and made our way to the first look-out. We waited by the lookout over the ravine for 20 mins, but didn't see anything and so carried on around the short trail and back outside. From the road we saw a couple of parrots fly over and heard an Imperial. I may have even seen one fly over the road but wasn't sure. We drove up and down the road to find the best vantage point for any flyovers and eventually a Red-necked landed in a tree giving us reasonable views. Also saw a Mangrove Cuckoo, which Evans considers uncommon. This form is illustrated in Rafaelle, and is more deeply hued on the breast than ones in the S. L.Antilles. We also walked a little way up the Morne Diablotin trail signposted from the road, which helpfully suggests: "Do not start climb after 10:30am", but things seemed to be getting quieter and so we decided to return later.
We drove down to Portsmouth and visited Fort Shirley, where there are some interesting blue lizards. We investigated the Cabrits "swamp", but it seemed to be virtually dry, and more-like an overgrown bog. An American Kestrel (the ones found in the L. Ant. are very boldly spotted and bright) on wires coming back to Portsmouth was our only sighting. At Syndicate in the afternoon (14:30), I scoped 2 Red-necked Parrots feeding in trees across the ravine from the first lookout. When you see one well for the first time don't be surprised if it knocks the wind out of you- they are breathtaking! My wife had arranged to meet someone that evening and so we had to depart momentarily early (16:25), thus missing the evening "parrot spectacular"? On the way back saw a large Kingfisher perched in a tree above the Layou river, (a hotspot for Ringed Kingfisher), but it was a female Belted.
In the morning we drove down to the Sulphur Springs well sign-posted just east of Soufriere. If you follow the stream up you can find little secluded bathing points and enjoy the hot water. The sole Lesser Antillean Flycatcher of the trip was in the Car Park. I also did some reconnaissance for breeding Black-capped Petrels. Birds have been attracted to tapes in Dec/Jan at Morne Fou, a hillside on the south coast near Petit Coulibri. The turn-off to the site is reached about a quarter mile before the Sulphur Springs. On our way back from the springs we turned left up this track to see where it would carry us. A short distance on the map but it turned out to be quite a detour. After 35 minutes of driving along what is essentially a 4WD track we reached the exclusive hideaway which is the luxurious Petit Coulibri Guesthouse. Not a bad place to stay. There I made inquiries with the owner Mrs. Barnard who pointed out the wooded hillside where Petrels had been located. How regular are they? Nobody knows. The story goes that after catching a petrel one night, Mrs. Barnard says she accidentally recorded over Peter Evans's tape, thus putting an early end to the research!
The track ahead was obligatory 4WD and the petrels would have to wait for another trip. After visiting Scolt Head, the bay which is formed from a sunken volano we returned to Roseau. On the way back I screeched to a halt as a Kingfisher landed on some telegraph wires by the road, but it turned into only another Belted. In the afternoon we visited Trafalgar Falls. Later I rang a contact and found out about a good place for Barn Owl. There is a cave overlooking the main road 2-3 miles north of Roseau at Canefield, at the junction of the small entrance track to the Hummingbird Inn. (If you reach the National Petroleum depot you have gone about 200 yards past it). It is partially hidden behind bushes. We went to the junction after dark and shone torches around in roughly the right direction, but couldn't see the cave and no owl so we planned to come back in daylight.
In the daylight the cave was obvious. It was right at the junction partially facing the main road. It is an unpleasant scramble up a vertical bank to reach the level of the cave before skirting right to the cave mouth. Several tonnes of fallen rock partially block the entrance to the cave and it looks like the rest of it could give way. I had never seen such unsafe looking rock before and extreme caution is required. The cave has a high roof and goes back a little way. Going inside and looking along the back I saw nothing except for lots of roosting bats, (and thought I had dipped), but as I turned to walk out, I found the Barn Owl standing there quietly, inside the mouth of the cave near the roof. The L.Antillean race (insularia) is a very small, long-legged, dark-breasted form. There are few wide-open spaces in Dominica, so presumably the species is fairly arboreal in its habits. I was happy to make a swift exit. Perhaps the bird(s) are visible around dusk without going up there? Evans had to come here for his Barn Owl photo in "Birds of the Eastern Caribbean", but be warned.
Emerald Pool, at 08:30, intent on finding a Forest Thrush. I described it to the forestry official at the entrance who said we might see one if we threw bread on the ground. As soon as I put down food I was astonished to see Brown Tremblers and L.A. Bullfinches hopping "around my feet". After a while a few Pearly-eyed Thrashers came down, and the official (who apologised for being a tree expert rather than a bird expert) was disappointed that this was not the bird I had described. The Forest Thrush is found only on Dominica, Guadeloupe (where it is uncommon) and volcano ravaged Montserrat. Many observers now believe it to be extinct on St.Lucia. In Dominica it is regarded as being widespread but shy and uncommon up to c1000 metres. Eventually some gardeners came over to join the discussion and they immediately knew what I was talking about. The bird I wanted they called a "Mauvais", (not "Merle" which is the Pearly-eyed Thrasher). According to them it was occasionally seen right by the picnic table (just inside the forest) early in the day, seasonally disappearing to gather at particular fruiting trees. I vowed to return EARLY the following morning.
Hilda's knee was giving her trouble and so the planned hike into the mountains was out. Instead the rest of the day was spent visiting the Carib Territory and then down to the Sari-sari waterfalls. After crossing many "kingfisherless rivers" we eventually saw a large kingfisher fishing from rocks on the Sari-sari River, but alas this soon turned into yet another Belted Kingfisher. Though uncommon I thought I would have stumbled upon a Ringed by now. In the early evening we walked over to see the parrots in the Botanic Gardens where they had six Red-necked Parrots and a single Imperial. This is a nice way to study the two species and see the difference in size, tail colour, upperpart colour and extent of red in the wing. I also caught up with a Collared Dove on the north side of town, confirming earlier "from-car" sightings. This species was first seen in 1994.
Pre-dawn start at 05:00; arrived at Emerald Pool at 05:50 and sat quietly at the picnic table. In the semi-darkness a Forest Thrush hopped around on the gravel track ahead, where it appeared on and off for the next hour or so. It has a scolding "chick" and a simple song made up of a few repeated notes. (Pearly-eyed Thrashers have a more varied song). At one point it chased another bird and sang from a perch about 8 feet up. It was fairly shy but approached extremely closely on occasions, inspecting my biscuit crumbs, but preferring to find invertebrates around the track. Lesser Antillean birding at its best! Also showing well on the track was a pair of Ruddy Quail-Doves. By 07:30 we were home having breakfast, followed by shopping in Roseau. At 14:30 we left for one last chance with the Imperials. Up at Syndicate it was raining. We spent a good 45 mins trying to spot a calling parrot in the forest but it would not show.
At the lookout Lesser Antillean Swifts were present in large numbers, and we heard but did not see parrots. I decided to try my luck outside by the road again. Around 17:00-17:30 several small groups of Red-necked Parrots flew into the trees around the road (halfway between the Syndicate Trail and Morne Diablotin Trail signs) and began feeding. They pretty much ignored my presence (not my usual experience with Amazons!) and if I wasn't going to see Sisserou at least I was going to get memorable views of Jaquot. I never heard a squeak from an Imperial, although a possible flew over at one point. (On 19th April a friend saw 2 Imperial Parrots fly past the first lookout on his THIRD attempt. In his opinion you have little chance of seeing them from the road but should stay by the ravine lookout at DAWN or DUSK. He saw them at 07:00). For me it was a major and unforeseen dip; I had gravely under-estimated this rare species.
After souvenir hunting we headed in the direction of Melville Hall Airport at 11:00. According to Evans, Imperial Parrots are most numerous on the north and north-eastern flanks of Morne Diablotin (whereas Syndicate is north-west). My local contact gave me a few pointers e.g. Governor Estate above Melville Hall, Woodford Hill and Bense Heights. The Governor Estate is reached by taking the first left turn north of Melville Hall Airport. The road eventually forks and deteriorates into a 4WD track at a bridge crossing the Melville Hall River. According to my map the right hand fork carries on up into "parrot country" and I could see distant forest. I walked over the bridge and a huge Kingfisher with a deep rufous breast flies over my head--Ringed Kingfisher at last--the only one of the trip! We retraced our steps and continued north to Woodford Hill. Here I took a road which carried on up through *Banana Plantations "for ever." A jeep would have been ideal and inevitably I was forced to stop, but I was on the edge of good forest. Imperial occurs at between 600-1300m and a plantation worker confirmed that if I went a bit higher up I might see Imperials in the evening. Evans recommends an approach from the north coast- from Bense Heights which leads up to Ti Branches. I had missed my chance though. We got back to the airport and checked in at 15:30 for our 17:00 flight.
Species list (Particularly visually distinct island forms
or endemics in bold.)
|COMMON NAME||SCIENTIFIC NAME||NOTES|
|Terns||Sterna sp.||A few birds seen at sea whilst driving up W coast were probably Roseate.|
|Cattle Egret||Egretta alba||a few seen.|
|Little Blue Heron||Egretta caerulea||Two seen flying over forest.|
|Green Heron||Butorides virescens||A few seen along larger rivers.|
|Broad-winged Hawk||Buteo platypterus||Common. (Race?)|
|American Kestrel||Falco sparverius||One seen. (The race "caribearum" of the E.Caribbean)|
|Zenaida Dove||Zenaida aurita||Seen in small numbers especially in dry, scrubby areas.|
|Common Ground Dove||Columbina passerina||Seen in small numbers in dry, scrubby areas.|
|Scaly-naped Pigeon||Columba squamosa||Only seen on one or two occasions flying across forest.|
|Ruddy Quail-Dove||Geotrygon montana||Pair at Emerald Pool.|
|Collared Dove||Streptopelia decaocto||Several seen around the fringes of Roseau; this species is obviously becoming well-established since the first sighting in 1994.|
|Red-necked Parrot (Jaquot)||Amazona arausiaca||ENDEMIC. Seen singly and in small groups of up to six birds. Population estimate 600-1000 birds|
|Sisserou (Imperial Parrot)||Amazona imperialis||ENDEMIC. Small population make seeing this bird tricky. Heard only. Population estimate 100-150 birds only.|
|Mangrove Cuckoo||Coccyzus minor||One at Syndicate plus one heard near Petit Coulibris on south coast.|
|Smooth-billed Ani||Crotophaga ani||Several groups encountered on roadsides in lowlands|
|Barn Owl||Tyto alba||(near ENDEMIC race) One seen in cave. (Elsewhwere this race only occurs on Grenada and St.Vincent where it is reportedly rare).|
|Lesser Antillean Swift||Chaetura martinica||near ENDEMIC Lots around lookout at Syndicate after rain. Too early for Black Swift?|
|Blue-headed Hummingbird||Cyanophaia bicolor||ENDEMIC to Dominica and Martin- ique. A male at Emerald Pool plus a flyby or two at Syndicate (This species is apparently common in elfin scrub at altitude e.g. Freshwater Lake approached from Laudat).|
|Antillean Crested Hummingbird||Orthorynchus cristatus||Fairly common.|
|Purple-throated Carib||Eulampis jugularis||Fairly common at Syndicate.|
|Belted Kingfisher||Ceryle alcyon||75% of Kingfisher seen were this species.|
|Ringed Kingfisher||Ceryle torquata||(ISOLATED W.I. POPULATION) One seen, but should have seen more?|
|Lesser Antillean Pewee||Contopus latirostris||Lesser Antillean ENDEMIC. At least two along Syndicate trail.|
|Lesser Antillean Flycatcher||Myiarchius oberi||Lesser Antillean ENDEMIC. One seen at Sulphur Springs Car park.|
|Grey Kingbird||Tyrannus dominicensis||Common.|
|Caribbean Elaenia||Elaenia martinica||Common in woodland|
|Antillean House Wren||Troglodytes "marticensis"||ENDEMIC? Common at Syndicate and other forest areas. In the Lesser Antilles this brown-breasted form is now confined to Dominica. Extinct in Martinique since 1900 and recently so in Guadeloupe. At least in St.Vincent the wrens appear much closer to continental Southern House Wrens. The St.Lucian Wren however has a unique appearance and DNA studies would be interesting.|
|Rufous-throated Solitaire||Myadestes genibarbis||Common in forest at higher elevations, but difficult to spot.|
|Red-legged Thrush||Turdus plumbeous||(RACE? Not found elsewhwere L..A. At least 2 seen along Syndicate Trail. (Occurs mainly in scrub along W coast)|
|Forest Thrush||Cichlherminia lherminieri||(NEAR ENDEMIC (ENDEMIC race)) - 2 at Emerald Pool.|
|Tropical mockingbird||Mimus gilvus||Common around gardens in lowlands.|
|Brown Trembler||Cinclocerthia ruficauda||(RACE?) Common at Emerald Pool/Syndicate area and throughout forest.|
|Pearly-eyed Thrasher||Margarops fuscatus||Common in forest although fairly shy.|
|Scaly-breasted Thrasher||Margarops fuscus||(L. ANTILLEAN ENDEMIC) Common. Surprisingly common and conspicuous in forested areas.|
|Black-whiskered Vireo||Vireo altiloquous||Common in forest.|
|Yellow Warbler||Dendroica petechia||Common in lowlands and even in centre of Roseau. The local form is one with some chesnut on the crown.|
|Plumbeous Warbler||Dendroica plumbea||(ENDEMIC to Dominica and Guadeloupe) Common in many habitats from scrub to forest.|
|Antillean Saltator||Saltator albicollis||Birds heard singing in gardens/ edging forest, but not sought-out. Likely fairly common. Listen for them in gardens on the way to Em.Pool.|
|Lesser Antillean Bullfinch||Loxigilla noctis||Very common.|
|Black-faced Grassquit||Tiaris bicolor||Fairly common on forest edge.|
|Carib Grackle||Quiscalus lugubris||Uncommon around habitations along west coast. Sexes appeared identical. A recent arrival in 1916.|
N.B. Black-capped Petrel probably breeds mainly Dec-Mar. The only resident species I did not locate was the Antillean Euphonia, surprisingly as I know its voice well, but they generally prefer high rainforest and move from area to area.
Evans, P. "Birds of the Eastern Caribbean" (1990)
Rafaelle et al. "Birds of the West Indies" (1998)
Evans & James "Dominica- A guide to Birdwatching" (1997)
Lonely Planet "Eastern Caribbean" (1998 2nd Edition)
(DOMINICA is also very well covered on the Internet).
Edward Massiah, Nelson Apts, Johnson Road, Fitts Village, St. James,
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel (246) 424-4105