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29 September - 3 October 2005

by John Thomlinson and Brynne Bryan

According to the guide books, this is not the best time of year to visit Dominica, but for us it was perfect.  It's the rainy season, but that was fine: we live in Puerto Rico, so the only difference was that it was less rainy in Dominica than at home.  Because most people read the guide books, there were very few other tourists.  Where the guide books talk of crowded trails, we never saw anyone else on any of the trails, literally.  It was not a "birding" trip, it was a short vacation, so we had one afternoon and a full day of birdwatching, then two full days of other things with a bit of birding thrown in.  Despite that, we were successful in finding most of the specialities – i.e. species and subspecies we don’t have at home.  We had never been to the Lesser Antilles before, so were looking forward to seeing some new birds.

We took the noon flight from San Juan to Melville Hall (an American Airlines Super SAAver fare, 'cos we're cheap), and we had a perfect introduction to the country.  The approach to the airport is beautiful – we could probably have seen parrots if we hadn't been so far below the treetops – and the immigration staff were the friendliest I have seen anywhere.  We had read in advance about the driving permit, so I bought that before we left the immigration area.  I learned to drive on the left, Brynne didn't, so we just bought the one permit.  The rental vehicle was ready and waiting – a Suzuki Escudo, which is, I guess, is like a Vitara found in the US.  It was a 4WD (although we didn't have to put in 4WD once, we appreciated the high clearance and rugged suspension on some of the roads), 2-door, hardtop, very reasonably priced at $39 a day from Courtesy Car Rental, whom I recommend strongly.  In the log that follows, I have included what might be considered speciality birds in bold.

On the road from Melville Hall to Portsmouth, we spotted Willet, Green Heron, Gray Kingbird, Zenaida Dove, and, near Indian River, Ringed Kingfisher.  In Portsmouth, leaving town heading south, we found an ATM next to a gas station – some ATMs on Dominica, including this one, don't accept the Plus system, so be warned if that's your only ATM card.  (The big bank on the waterfront in Roseau does take Plus.)  The gas station has the tourist permits available – a week for US$10 per person, possibly the best deal on anything, anywhere.  Be sure to get the permit before you do much of anything else.  There are no signs telling you which sites require them, and the forest rangers take their jobs very seriously.

We headed out of Portsmouth as far as the road to Syndicate, and drove up that into the Morne Diablontins area.  On the road up, we saw Lesser Antillean Saltator, Lesser Antillean Swift, Bananaquit, and Lesser Antillean Bullfinch.  Maybe I should put Bananaquit in bold, since it is definitely not a temperate zone bird, but you would have to travel through Dominica with a blindfold not to see one.  The trail itself is through a spectacular forest full of trees that are familiar to us but much, much larger than we see in Puerto Rico.  From the first lookout, we saw a Little Blue Heron and about eight Red-necked Parrots, two flying over, calling, then five or six flitting about and feeding in the trees on the other side of the gorge.  It seemed that not all had the red neck, so perhaps we were seeing juveniles.  That's always nice, seeing juveniles of rare species. 

We stayed at the overlook as long as we could (we did check out the other two – the second is too overgrown to be useful, and the third appeared to have a view that didn't go as high up the mountain, so we spent most of the time at the first) and hiked out as it was getting dark.  The drive to Roseau is not well signed (in fact, it's not signed), but you'd think that with as few roads as there are it would be easy.  It isn't, particularly, and many of the drivers have a liberal interpretation of their side of the road, so it made for a tiring drive.  We arrived at Cocoa Cottages, in Trafalgar, a little after 8 pm, ready for a beer.  (Once you find the main road out of Roseau, Trafalgar is actually signed.)  Iris, the owner of Cocoa Cottages had cooked enough for us, so we had an excellent dinner, and maybe more than one beer.  Four life birds between the airport and the hotel, not a bad start.

Friday morning dawned with us on the patio of our room (the Jwa room – which we highly recommend for birdwatchers, or anyone else).  The birding was great: Lesser Antillean Flycatcher (which Brynne missed and almost turned out to be a bogey bird for her this trip), Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Zenaida Dove, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (including an albino), followed by Purple-throated Carib, and the melanoptera subspecies of Yellow Warbler while we were eating breakfast.  A Brown Trembler in the tree above our car as we were setting out rounded out the "yard" list for the morning.

We drove up to Freshwater Lake, which has a brand new concrete road now, and saw Little Blue Heron and Spotted Sandpiper.  We then parked at the Boeri Lake trailhead and hiked through a really nice mix of dense forest and elfin woods to the lake.  Lots of birds, and all of them allowed us exceptional views – none of this piecing species together from bits of wings, maybe an eye-ring, and was that a white wing-bar?  The Plumbeous Warbler was especially obliging, foraging within a few feet of us for several minutes.  The other birds were Blue-headed Hummingbird, Bananaquit, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Black-faced Grassquit, Purple-throated Carib, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Brown Trembler, and the island subspecies rufescens of House Wren, quite different from mainland birds.  On this trail, and pretty much every other trail, we heard Solitaires singing.  Rafaele et al., in A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, describe "A hauntingly beautiful minor-key whistle, most often heard at dawn."  They got the hauntingly beautiful right, but we heard this all day long.  Maybe a seasonal thing.

On our way down the road from the trailhead, we were chased and flagged down by a forest ranger, who had seen us come down the road from Freshwater Lake, demanding to see our permits.  So, you can't even drive up the road without them.  Be warned.  We went over to the delightfully named Wotten Waven – nothing to do with Elmer Fudd, apparently, but meaning Wooden Bridge in the Dominican patois.  We looked without success for the trails to the sulphurous pools, but we did see a Tropical Mockingbird and heard another Lesser Antillean Flycatcher.  We then went back to the Laudat end of the trail to Middleham Falls (which is actually signed) and parked by the side of the road.  There is a paved road, but the guide books talk of a rough 4WD track, so I figured it would rapidly deteriorate, and I, unlike Brynne (who didn’t have the driving permit), am a 4WD weenie, so we walked.  Good call, as it happened, although it meant we didn’t have time to reach the Falls. 

From the road we saw Purple-throated Carib, Brown Trembler, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Plumbeous Warbler, House Wren, Smooth-billed Ani, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher (which Brynne missed), Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Blue-headed Hummingbird, Caribbean Elaenia, Gray Kingbird, Lesser Antillean Saltator, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Black-faced Grassquit, Bananaquit, Little Blue Heron, and Lesser Antillean Pewee.  On the trail itself we saw a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk (subsp rivieri), Plumbeous Warbler, numerous Brown Tremblers, and Purple-throated Carib.  I saw what was almost certainly a Ruddy Quail-Dove fly down a gully as we approached it, but the size, flight pattern, and overall colour were the only field marks seen.  I don’t know of anything that rufous that could have been there, but I didn't count it.  At the trail head is a sign saying 45 minutes to the Falls.  After 40 minutes we came across another sign saying 20 minutes, so, since it was getting dark, we turned around there.  As it was, it was almost dark by the time we reached the car.  Walking back along the road between the trailhead and the car we saw a Spotted Sandpiper in a dasheen patch, which seemed odd.

Saturday morning started much like Friday, adding Black-faced Grassquit and a kettle of six Broad-winged Hawks rising on the thermals above the cliffs to the yard list.  Today was our Roseau and on-the-water day, so after a tour of the city and its museum, we sauntered down to Champagne Beach, which is supposed to have gas bubbling up through the sand - apparently the champagne was flat the day we were there – and Scotts Head.  One downside of going to Dominica in the off season is that most of the restaurants are not open.  This was made painfully obvious in Scotts Head, which, is frankly, a pretty charmless place, even at the best of times, I suspect.  The only thing on the menu at the only restaurant was fish and chips – sounds good, seaside town, fresh fish.  The piece of fish had been under a heat lamp since the end of the tourist season – they must have seen us coming and celebrated their good fortune at finally unloading the last food item they had.  I recommend sandwiches from the hotel when traveling the island, at least in the off season.  At Scott's head we saw Magnificent Frigatebird and Tropical Mockingbird, but, more importantly, we snorkeled the rim of an old caldera – we have dived on walls before, but never snorkeled above one.  The term "awesome" seems appropriate here. 

After that, the day was getting on, so we decided to try for the local insularia subspecies of Barn Owl.  I have a pathetic record of finding owls, so it wasn't with any great expectation that we followed the instructions found in another trip report.  We finally found the Hummingbird Inn  driveway on the main road near Canefield (it is, as mentioned, just before a petroleum depot, but it is now called West Indies Petroleum, not National Petroleum).  We could see the cave quite easily, but getting up to it was a bit of a challenge.  The dirt bank is very loose, and it had been raining.  We had been swimming, and we were planning on eating out in Roseau that night, so to keep my clothes clean, I scrambled up the bank in swimming trunks and hiking boots.  Fortunately there was no-one else around to see this spectacle.  Except the Barn Owl, who was perching there to the left of the entrance, as the trip report had described.  Well worth the potential humiliation.  We also picked up Royal Tern out over the sea.

As daylight failed, we went to Cochrane, to the other end of the Middleham Falls Trail.  It was almost dark when we got to the trailhead, but we had wanted to see (and smell) the delightfully named Stinking Hole, so we set off, with flashlights to find it.  All we had was a description that it was along the trail after a couple of stream crossings.  On the way there, I am sure we heard the evening calls of either Red-legged or Forest Thrush, but it was too dark to see anything.  We did hear a number of the scolding calls of Lesser Antillean Saltators.  We found the Stinking Hole, but it didn’t smell – apparently at night, when it's drizzling, is not the time to appreciate it.  We did see the bats emerging in good numbers, though.

Sunday – the day for the Boiling Lake and Valley of Desolation.  We added Yellow-crowned Night-Heron to the yard list, then set off.  An incredible hike, but, as our guide, Jeffrey Charles, said when we stopped at Titou Gorge to look at a Lesser Antillean Flycatcher (Brynne finally got to see it), we could either birdwatch or hike to Boiling Lake – there wasn't time to do both.  We did see Green Heron on the way to the trailhead, and Plumbeous Warbler, Lesser Antillean Bullfinch, Bananaquit, Blue-headed Hummingbird, and Red-necked Parrot on the trail.  The parrots were very close by, three of them in a tree, in the rain, right by the trail.  Jeffrey heard them first – a sort of a chuckling contact call, and we got really good views of them.  We highly recommend the Boiling Lake hike and Jeffrey (arranged through Iris at Cocoa Cottages).

We hung around the cottages Monday morning and then drove across the island, through the Carib Territory, back to Melville Hall.  The only notable bird was a single Red-necked Parrot which flew across the road right in front of us.  So, we didn’t see Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Green-throated Carib, or Ruddy Quail-Dove, but all of those are backyard birds for us, nor the albiventris subspecies of Red-legged Thrush.  Our two big misses were Imperial Parrot and Forest Thrush.  Well, you have to leave something for next time.

John Thomlinson