1 - 5 April 1998
by Ted Floyd
I made a brief business trip to the Commonwealth of Dominica during the past week (1 April 1998 - 5 April 1998). Because of the brevity and nature of the trip I was unable to do a lot of birding. All the same, I managed several escapes from my meetings, and managed a fairly broad, albeit cursory, sampling of the country's avifauna. In a nutshell, I found Dominica to be considerably more wonderful than advertised.
DAY 1. 1 APRIL 1998
The mid-afternoon descent into Melville Hall Airport was spectacular. We flew down the middle of a steep ravine planted with coconuts and bananas. After getting off the airplane I could recognize the vocalizations of the BANANAQUITS, GRAY KINGBIRDS, and BLACK-WHISKERED VIREOS that inhabited the trees next to the airport parking lot. However, I was unfamiliar with the song of the LESSER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCHES which also were present here; but in only a few hours the varied vocalizations of that species would be well-ingrained in my memory, as it is one of the most abundant and widespread birds on Dominica. The only other birds that I noticed on my hurried departure from the airport were: a lone RINGED KINGFISHER coursing an adjacent stream; and a fly-by BROAD-WINGED HAWKS. As it turned out, that was my only Ringed Kingfisher of the trip, but only one of many Broad-winged Hawks that I would encounter.
The bus ride south, through the heart of Dominica, was fantastic. The roadside itself was fairly disturbed, primarily with banana plantations. But the distant vistas were of essentially undisturbed primary rainforest; in this regard, Dominica is utterly unlike anywhere else I've seen in the West Indies or mainland tropics. I would later learn that much of the Dominican rainforest has, in fact, never been felled. The interior receives at least 6300 mm of rain a year, and certain spots receive close to 8500 mm annually. At a rest stop (for a photo op of a banana plantation), I managed to find: a SCALY-NAPED PIGEON flying past; a pair of SCALY-BREASTED THRASHERS foraging on a banana plant; and several fly-over Chaetura swifts that I assume had to have been LESSER ANTILLEAN SWIFTS.
Our destination was the capitol city of Roseau on the southwest coast of Dominica. In the little time before sundown, I managed to visit the outskirts of the national botanical gardens, where I found numerous ANTILLEAN CRESTED HUMMINGBIRDS and BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS, and smaller numbers of ZENAIDA DOVES. For those who care about such matters, ROCK DOVES and RINGED TURTLE DOVES also were present here; the latter species is well-established here and elsewhere, and eminently countable. Also present along the edge of the gardens were several species from earlier in the day, including Bananaquits and Lesser Antillean Bullfinches and Gray Kingbirds. Meanwhile, MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS soared high overhead.
DAY 2. 2 APRIL 1998
A very quick early morning inspection of the botanical gardens produced a noisy TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRD, plus most of the species from the previous day.
Soon we were off to Portsmouth in northwestern Dominica for a day of business. The drive north, along the coast, featured numerous Magnificent Frigatebirds and tropicbirds. Only two tropicbirds ventured close enough for positive identification, and both of them were RED-BILLED TROPICBIRDS. CARIB GRACKLES and SMOOTH-BILLED ANIS were common sights along the way, and COMMON GROUND-DOVES flushed from several spots. In wetter situations, I encountered GREEN HERONS and GREAT EGRETS. It was gratifying to see very few CATTLE EGRETS, here or anywhere else on the island; quite simply, there are very few livestock (and therefore lots of rainforest!) on Dominica. A note about the Green Herons: at several places on Dominica I saw foraging *flocks* of these birds, hunting in wet meadows or even playing fields. I had never seen this behavior elsewhere in the species' range.
Late in the afternoon, in the garden by a restaurant near the coastal
village of Coulibistri, I managed to find two interesting birds: the beautiful
GREEN-THROATED CARIB and the intriguing "CHESTNUT-CROWNED" YELLOW WARBLER.
The Yellow Warblers on Dominica are chestnut-crowned, and very different
from either the chestnut-headed population on the tropical mainland or
the yellow-crowned population in the temperate zone. Dominican Yellow-Warblers
are strictly confined to low elevations, as far as I could tell; but they
are not the extreme habitat specialists like their tropical mainland analogs.
DAY 3. 3 APRIL 1998
The morning started out with a quick (five-minute) seawatch from the main dock in downtown Roseau, where I found the usual near-shore Magnificent Frigratebirds and off-shore tropicbirds. I also got a BROWN BOOBY, my first of the trip.
There was still a little time before morning business, so I headed to the botanical gardens, a few blocks inland. The morning's only addition to my trip list was a flock of CARIBBEAN MARTINS, foraging way overhead. Otherwise, it was the usual suspects: Rock Doves, Zenaida Doves, Ringed Turtle Doves, Common Ground-Doves, Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, Smooth-billed Anis, Gray Kingbirds, Black-whiskered Vireos, "Chestnut-crowned" Yellow Warblers, Bananaquits, Black-faced Grassquits, and Carib Grackles. Green Herons foraged in the fields, and a Broad-winged Hawk carried nesting material to a nest.
Conveniently, lunch was at an outdoor restaurant near the ascent to Trafalgar Falls in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. The park's holdings span more than 50% of the island's southern half; and much of the adjacent land is primary rainforest as well. Anyhow, my lunchtime additions to the trip list included: a CARIBBEAN ELAENIA in a clearing; and a beautiful BLUE-HEADED HUMMINGBIRD sitting on a (tiny!) nest right near the restaurant. Broad-winged Hawks and Black-whiskered Vireos also were present here, as were seemingly billions of Bananaquits.
DAY 4. 4 APRIL 1998
I was free for the entire morning, so I hired a Dominican to drive me to Morne Diablotins in the majestic Northern Forest Reserve. The drive from the main "highway" (as it were) at sea-level to the mid-elevation Syndicate Trail featured the most dramatic biological and climatological gradient I have ever seen. In the course of less than four miles we went from bone dry desert scrub to tropical rainforest.
At the beginning of the ascent, the dominant vegetation (or lack thereof) included various legumes (lots of acacias, a few mimosas, and something that looked for all the world like a Kentucky Coffee Tree), yuccas, agaves, prickly pears, and the finest specimens of organ-pipe cacti I have ever seen. I couldn't identify any other plants, because all their leaves had fallen off. (There was rather less greenery there than there is here today at pre-budburst 40 degrees north latitude.)
Just a few miles inland, the scenery had changed considerably. The setting was agricultural, and the dominant plants included coffee, dasheen, coconuts, and of course bananas. I saw a curious-looking agouti (not a bird) here.
And a few miles farther still (and only four miles from the shore) the scenery was breathtaking! The mist-shrouded canopies of the gigantic buttressed trees were more than one hundred feet high. Common plant families included Melastomataceae, Piperaceae, and Rubiaceae. Palms and tree-ferns were abundant, and lianas were everywhere. The massively-buttressed gommier trees were especially striking. It was always misty, and sometimes pouring down rain, here in one of the wettest rainforests in the hemisphere.
And there were wonderful birds! The songs of RUFOUS-THROATED SOLITAIRES rang out across the deep gorges. Odd-looking PLUMBEOUS WARBLERS crept about the lianas and big trunks. A flock of noisy RED-NECKED PARROTS paused in the treetops. Geotrygon quail-doves called from deep within the forest interior; my only positive identification was of a BRIDLED QUAIL-DOVE. An ANTILLEAN EUPHONIA flitted through a clearing. A highly musical LESSER ANTILLEAN HOUSE-WREN sang from the understory. PEARLY-EYED THRASHERS were common. And I also saw many species that I already had encountered elsewhere on Dominica, including: Broad-winged Hawk (abundant), Scaly-naped Pigeon, Blue-headed Hummingbird, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Gray Kingbird (clearings), Caribbean Elaenia (clearings), Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Black-whiskered Vireo, Bananaquit (clearings), Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (clearings), and Black-faced Grassquit (clearings). A truly strange sight was a lone LITTLE BLUE HERON winging its way across a steep rainforest gorge.
But the finest of all my finds up here came at the very end, right when we were heading back to our vehicle. It was the one bird, by far more than any other, that I wanted to see on Dominica! It was the strange and bizarre TREMBLING TREMBLER. I heard the bird first, and soon saw it perched near the top of a fairly small tree at the edge of a clearing. It right away began to tremble (you have to see this to believe it!) and did so for the remainder of the 60-90 seconds that I had it in view. Then it flew away into the rainforest. I was ecstatic. It was my most sought-after species, and I can now say it is definitely one of my Top 10 favorite birds.
We left the trembler, and the rainforest, around 9:45 A.M.
DAY 5. 5 APRIL 1998
I did a little denouement birding (what else could follow an encounter with a Trembling Trembler?) before my various engagements on Sunday morning. I was back in Roseau, and I had time only for a brief visit to the botanical gardens. I added another species (LESSER ANTILLEAN FLYCATCHER) to my trip list, and I savored my last looks (at least for a while) at old friends like bananaquits and grassquits and bullfinches.
On the drive back to the airport the driver stopped at a vista overlooking Morne Diablotins. I snapped an obligatory photograph and then wandered around in search of birds, for all of three minutes. And I found a goodie! It was a hulking PURPLE-THROATED CARIB, perched on a wire right along the road.
Then we proceeded to the airport without stopping again.
* Dominica is gratifyingly pristine. To be sure, the coastline is pretty well trashed, because 98% of the island's population lives within a mile of the shore. But the very rugged interior has been spared the ravages of agriculture and development. In fact, only a handful of roads really penetrate (let alone traverse) the island's interior.
* For the time being, Dominicans seem to welcome eco-tourism and to discourage the cruise-ship scene. Half the country seems to be employed in the private eco-tour guide business, and it is very easy to find someone who can show you around or point you in the right direction.
* Dominica isn't cheap. I'd say that hotels and meals and transportation are as expensive as in the United States.
* I felt completely safe, everywhere I went. The food was fine, the people were friendly, and the weather was nice. The roads were awful, and the drivers were worse still. Buy insurance (automobile and life), if you plan to rent a vehicle.
* I deliberately evaded this point in my above narrative, but there are only two endemics on Dominica. I would surely hope that a visitor to Dominica would look for more than just the two endemics. In particular, I think it's fascinating to consider how seemingly-familiar species (e.g., House Wren, Yellow Warbler, Green Heron) can be just so different from what we see up north. Also, it's very interesting to consider the differences between Dominican bird populations and their conspecifics elsewhere in the West Indies and mainland tropics.
If you have specific questions, I will be happy to try to answer them.