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4 - 6 March 2006

by Mike Tanis

Southwestern Dominican Republic

Our winter vacation this year had to satisfy my wishes and those of my wife: requirements from the one side were that it had to be warm and have a lovely beach, and from the other it had to be warm and have interesting birding. It is surprisingly challenging to find the best of both worlds in a single destination: it seemed that one side or the other would end up seriously compromising their wishes, or the whole thing would end up being absurdly expensive for a nine day trip. The Dominican Republic came up early on in the discussion, with its economical airfares from Philadelphia, beautiful beaches, and respectable list of endemic birds. However, it fell from favor when I discovered that the best area for birding (the Southwestern portion of the DR) was diametrically opposite the area of the best beaches, Punta Cana. Add in a level of difficulty with the language factor--we can struggle through it, but are certainly not fluent in Spanish- -tough terrain requiring a 4WD rental, and challenging driving even when the roads are passable, and it appeared that the DR was going to push us over our budget of money and time.

Nonetheless, I sent an inquiry about what might be possible within our constraints to Steve Brauning, who maintains a very helpful website introducing birding in the DR.

His answers indicated that we would really need a guide and a 4WD vehicle to see a good number of the endemics in the southwestern part of the country, especially if we only had a couple of days. We also realized through our emails that we had a common acquaintance--my father! Steve is occasionally able to arrange trips and guide birders, but only infrequently when his schedule permits. However, Steve was generous enough to carve a three day weekend out of his schedule, and agreed to take us to the southwestern part of the DR. I was ecstatic, and my wife was amenable to the arrangement, provided that we also planned to be at a resort at Punta Cana for the remainder of the week. [A note on Steve's availability: he is employed full-time in mission work in Santo Domingo. As stated above, he is only infrequently available for arranging/guiding trips to the southwest. Day trips within reach of Santo Domingo are more feasible. And to be sure, he is always eager to provide helpful information for visiting birders and to connect birders with other local guides. Email him at stevebrauning AT yahoo DOT com]

Since the count of Hispaniolan endemic species is continually being challenged and changed, forgive me if my count of 29 endemics is not precisely correct. All but three of those are present in the southwestern part of the country. Since we were only allocating a full day and a second morning to our birding in the southwest, Steve decided to focus our birding in the area on the north side of the Sierra de Bahoruco, using the town of Puerto Escondido as our base.

Steve met us at the airport on Saturday March 4, but since we and most of the passengers on our flight were missing their luggage due to a problem in Philadelphia, we waited three hours together at the airport for the next flight, which fortunately did arrive with our luggage. Then we drove to Steve's house in Santo Domingo to leave some of our belongings and load up the camping gear. We then made the 4 hour drive to Puerto Escondido with a stop for a quick dinner along the way. We arrived in the dark around 9:30pm. Burrowing owls were seen along the roadside in the last couple of miles before reaching Puerto Escondido.

Steve had made arrangements to camp at Kate Wallace's property on the outskirts of the small town. Kate runs Tody Tours  her own bird and nature guiding company in the DR. Contact Kate or Steve for inquiries about staying at the campsite, which currently has a latrine, roofed shelter with cement floor and table and benches, and room for several tents. There was a full-time caretaker there during our visit. We finally managed to get to bed around 10:30 pm, anticipating an early wake-up at 4:30am, because we still had a 90 minute drive up the mountain on a rutted dirt "highway" to the higher elevation birding site. Just before falling asleep I heard a Least Poorwill, our first endemic species, calling from somewhere around the campsite. It's always a thrill to be plunked down (literally from the sky via airplane) in a brand new place surrounded by a new avifauna.

The elevation of the parts of the Sierra de Bahoruco, accessible by vehicle from Puerto Escondido varies from 1500 to 5000 feet. The habitat can be dry scrub to moister but still quite arid forests, finally up to moist broadleaf and pine forests. However, the area does not have any true rainforest or cloud forest, as the prevailing weather comes from the north and the moisture is wrung out by Hispaniola's main mountain range to the north. Even so, mists and clouds cover the area almost daily, so there is enough moisture to support a forest. The only significant rainfalls for the area come with the sporadic but heavy tropical storms of the wet season from July-October.

At 4:30am we dragged ourselves out of bed and piled into Steve's van. There were six of us this morning; the other three birders were acquaintances of Steve, and it made sense for all of us to travel the gut- wrenching road in a single vehicle and bird together at the top. We saw a Barn Owl along the road by the agricultural lands not long after setting out. But for the next hour and a half we bounced and bumped our way up the mountain in the dark to a place along the road above the border guard station. Steve called this area "Zapoten."

As the sky began to lighten we stepped out of the van into the crisp, chill morning air, and quickly munched some breakfast snacks as we began birding. A Chuck-will's-widow was calling, and we saw the bird fly out through the trees. Soon other birds began to vocalize: Red-legged Thrush, Bicknell's Thrush, some unidentified warblers, and Hispaniolan Euphonia all began vocalizing amid the constant wine-glass-rim tones of the Rufous-throated Solitaire. We spent the next two hours slowing birding our way about a mile up the road. While the activity was never overwhelming, there were very few dull moments. Birds seemed to always be moving around us, and we enjoyed a lot of good sightings.

Highlights of the early morning hours included excellent looks at the Hispaniolan Trogon, the Western Chat Tanager, and both endemic warblers. Golden swallows swooped overhead the entire morning. A group of about six Gray-headed (Hispaniolan) Quail-doves were seen several times on the road ahead of us. We heard LaSelle's Thrush, and had a distant glimpse of a probable one on the road some distance ahead of us, but never had a great view of that species. A very common bird on the mountain was Black-throated Blue Warbler. It was a beautiful morning to be birding: cool and sunny, with clear skies.

One contrast that we couldn't ignore was the dramatic difference in vegetation between the Haitian side of the border and the Dominican side. The Haitian side was essentially unvegetated except for a few single trees that provided a little shade and some overgrazed grassy areas, most of it having been devoured by goats and cattle. Deep gullies were evidence of the significant soil erosion in progress.

In contrast, the Dominican side was for the most part vegetated, and even forested on the higher slopes. Some of this is officially national park land, but the fact that much of the land has up to now escaped the axe and machete says something about the positive effect that good government policy can accomplish. According to Steve, not only is it illegal to cut trees, but also brush and any plants, even on private land, where permits are required for any clearing of vegetation. Since charcoal is generally the primary cooking fuel for poor people in the countryside, the government supports its tougher stance on cutting by providing subsidized propane fuel in the marketplace. The effect of these policies is evident. Sure, there is still evidence of illegal cutting, but the incidence of this problem has been greatly reduced. It also requires a more vigilant border control, since the trees on the Dominican side are a tempting resource to anyone on both sides of the border.

On the way down the mountain we made some occasional stops for birds. At one particularly productive spot ["Aguacate"] back down below the Dominican/Haitian border station, we found Antillean Piculet, superb views of Worm-eating warbler, and also good looks at the Euphonia and Broad- billed Tody. At our lunch stop ["Naranjo"] a little further down the mountain, we were buzzed by some Hispaniolan parakeets.

Back in Puerto Escondido, we enjoyed a great view of a pair of Greater Antillean Orioles before returning to the campsite for some down time in the heat of the day. Back at the camp, we took a quick bath in the cool and visually clean irrigation channel, which provided a refreshing respite from the heat of the afternoon. However, I had a touch of bowel trouble for the next few days. The source of the bug could have been almost anything I touched that day or the previous one, but the channel water (which of course I didn't drink) is one possibility. All three of the hummingbird species visited a flowering plant near our bathing area in the time we were there.

As things began to cool down later in the afternoon, we walked up the road from the campsite to the Rabo de Gato Trail, which passes through a forested area with some ponds and swampy areas. Here we found a few warblers, and the prize of the afternoon, the Bay-breasted Cuckoo, perched quietly in one of the trees. After watching it for several minutes it flew off, but we heard it calling a couple of times as it gradually moved further up the hill. We listened especially for the Flat-billed Vireo, but that species still eluded us. White-necked Crows called in the distance, and were eventually spotted in distant palm trees, but that was the best view we could get of them.

After our dinner of grilled burgers, we went out spotlighting in the hopes of finding Ashy-faced Owl. We ultimately had no luck with the Ashy-faced, but ended up with terrific views of Northern Potoo, another Barn Owl, and a couple of more Burrowing Owls.

On the second morning we were up not quite as early, since we were visiting a closer site, "La Placa", where there is a dirt track through some more forest. It was very quiet on that morning, and until we got back to the main road didn't see or hear much except for a number of Antillean Mangos. We did hear Loggerhead Kingbird, but never got a glimpse, and saw some Hispaniolan Parrots fairly close, as well as a few Cape May Warblers. Out by the main road, we had great views of a Mangrove Cuckoo that was remarkably far inland for a bird I think of as inhabiting coastal forests.

We left late Monday morning for Santo Domingo with Steve. There he dropped us at the bus station, and we took a very nice bus ($7.50 each, 4 hrs, Espresso Santo Domingo Bavaro) to our resort in Bavaro (Punta Cana area). We didn't see too many birds at the resort, but the gardens there attracted a few species: a breeding plumaged Great Egret, Greater Antillean Mango, Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo, White-collared swift (overhead), Hispaniolan Woodpecker, Gray Kingbird, Cape May Warbler, Bananaquit, Palm Chat. We were fascinated by the woodpeckers from our third floor patio: they had drilled holes in some green coconuts still hanging on the tree, and returned every afternoon to drink/eat from them; also, in many of the palms we could see nest holes that had been excavated.

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Steve Brauning for taking time from his schedule to show us the wonderful birding in the Dominican Republic. We also very much appreciated his commentary and the window on Dominican life and history that he provided as we traveled together across the country. Thanks also to Sandra and his family for allowing him the time away from his other responsibilities. We had a great experience in the D.R. because of Steve's preparation and enthusiasm.

Z Zapoten (top of the mountains)
A Aguacade (intermediate stops, including La Placa, Naranja)
F agricultural lands outside Puerto Escondido
R Puerto Escondido, campsite, and Rabo de Gato Trail
O Other (mostly seen from the car or bus)
B Ocean Bavaro Resort and surrounding (March 7-12)
H Heard only

.....B Magnificent Frigatebird
.....B Little Blue Heron
....O. Cattle Egret
....OB Great Egret
....O. Snowy Egret
....O. Tri-colored Heron
....O. Turkey Vulture
..F... Sharp-shinned Hawk
..FRO. Red-tailed Hawk
..F... Merlin
..FRO. American Kestrel
....OB Royal Tern
....OB Ring-billed Gull
....O. Common Moorhen
...R.. Zenaida Dove
...ROB Mourning Dove
..FRO. Common Ground-dove
Z..... Red-necked Pigeon Columba squamosa
Z..... Plain Pigeon Columba inornata
Z..... Gray-headed (Hispaniolan) Quail Dove Geotrygon caniceps
ZA.... Hispaniolan Parrot Amazona ventralis
ZA.... Hispaniolan Parakeet Aratinga choloptera
.A.... H Olive-throated Parakeet
..FROB Smooth-billed Ani
...R.. Bay-breasted Cuckoo Hyetornis rufigularis
.A.... Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor
...ROB Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo Saurothera longirostris
..F... Northern Potoo Nyctibius jamaicensis
Z..... Chuck-will's Widow
...R.. H Least Poorwill Siphonorhis brewsteri
..FR.. Barn Owl
...R.. Burrowing Owl
...R.. Black Swift
.A...B White-collared Swift
.A.R.B Antillean Palm Swift Tachornis phoenicobia
...R.. Vervain Hummingbird Mellisuga minima
Z..R.. Hispaniolan Emerald Chorostilbon swainsonii
...R.B Antillean Mango Anthracothorax dominicus
Z..... Hispaniolan Trogon Priotelus roseigaster
...R.. White-necked Crow Corvus leucognaphalus
Z..... Narrow-billed Tody Todus angustirostris
.A.R.. Broad-billed Tody Todus sublatus
.AF... H Loggerhead Kingbird Tyrannus caudifasciatus
ZA.... Stolid Flycatcher Myiarchus stodidus
Z..... Greater Antillean Elaenia Elaenia fallax
ZA.... Hispaniolan Pewee Contopus hispaniolensis
.A.... Antillean Piculet Nesoctites micromegas
ZAFROB Hispaniolan Woodpecker Melanerpes striatus
.A...B Caribbean Martin Progne dominicensis
Z..... Golden Swallow Kalochelidon euchrysea
....O. Cave Swallow
..F.O. Northern Mockingbird
Z..... H Bicknell's Thrush
ZA.... Red-legged Thrush Mimocichla plumbea
Z..... Rufous-throated Solitaire Myadestes genibarbis
Z..... La Selle's Thrush Turdus swalesi
ZA.R.. Antillean Euphonia Euphonia musica
...R.. Greater Antillean Bullfinch Loxigilla violacea
...ROB Palm Chat Dulus dominicus
...ROB Greater Antillean Grackle Quiscalus niger
...R.. Greater Antillean Oriole Icterus dominicensis
ZA.... Green-tailed Warbler Microligea palustris
Z..... White-winged Warbler Xenoligea montana
.A.ROB Bananaquit
ZA.R.. Black-and-white Warbler
.A.... Worm-eating Warbler
.A.... Northern Parula
ZA.R.B Cape May Warbler
ZA.R.. Black-throated Blue Warbler
...R.. Blackburnian Warbler
Z..... Pine Warbler
.A.... Ovenbird
...R.. Louisiana Waterthrush
Z..R.. American Redstart
Z..... Hispaniolan Stripe-headed Tanager Spindalis dominicensis
Z..R.. Black-crowned Palm Tanager Phaenicophilus palmarum
Z..... Western Chat Tanager Calyptophilus frugivous
.A.F.. Yellow-faced Grassquit
...ROB House Sparrow

FYI: Other Hispaniolan (H) and Carribean (C) Endemics (not found)

C West Indian Whistling Duck Dendrocygna arborea
C White-crowned Pigeon Columba leucocephala
C Key West Quail Dove Geotrygon chyrsia
C Double-striped Thickknee Burhinus bistiatus
C Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
C Yellow-breasted Crake Poliolyminus flaviventer
C Spotted Rail Pardirallus maculatus
C Greater Antillean Nightjar Caprimulgus cubanensis
C Antillean Nighthawk Chordeiles gundlachii
H Ridgeway's Hawk Buteo ridgwayi
C Stygian Owl Asio Stygius
H Ashy-faced Owl Tyto glaucops
C Palm Crow Corvus palmarum
H Flat-billed Vireo Vireo nanus
H Grey-crowned Palm Tanager Phaenicophilus poliocephalus
H Eastern Chat Tanager Calyptophilus tertius
H Antillean Siskin Carduelis dominicensis
H Hispaniolan Crossbill Loxia megaplaga

Mike Tanis
Audubon PA
mtanis AT porticosys DOT com

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