Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dominican Republic, Day 3 and 4. A list for a new country!

After a surprisingly chilly night filled with the cry of Red Junglefowl (actually common roosters to be more prosaic) I got up for a 5:00 AM departure to the Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco, in the mountains on the border of Haiti. Kate warned me to wear a jacket, as we would be gaining some altitude. To be honest, I needed a jacket at her camp! Kate's camp is technically outside of the park, but still part of the same biosphere. The road up is rough, and despite being relatively close, its probably a two hour drive to where we were heading. Many birders who visit this area stay in Baharona, which requires leaving at 2:00 AM. It was worth sleeping in a screened shelter for the extra three hours sleep alone.

As I said the road was rough, but I have been on worse. It does require high clearance. Parts of it are an old river bed. I was a little disappointed to not have any night birds along the road. Least Paraque are in that area, but Kate said they are not likely to sit on the road like our Paraques. We reached the Aguacate Army post while it was still quite dark. The road was blocked with large stones and logs. Kate honked and a couple of solidiers came dragging out, looking very sleepy, and cleared the road so we could pass. Kate is well known in this area and they waived us through. We worked our way up to a corner in the cloud forest where our main target birds are found. We arrived as the sky was lightening. Hispaniolan Nightjars were calling.  I definitely needed the jacket.  Kate pointed up the hill and said "That's Haiti". It was only a few steps away. The road actually criss crosses the border on the way up. Its not even marked here. Even in the early light I could see the de-forestation. The lovely discordant calls of Rufous-throated Solitaire rang out around us.

A dark bird flew into a small tree a few yards in front of me. In the pre-dawn light I could see it was a thrush, looking  somewhat like a very dark American Robin, a La Selle's Thrush! This species  is classified as endangered by Bird Life International.  The rapid loss of habitat in both Haiti and the DR has put it under extreme pressure. Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco is probably the best place to look for it, particularly the corner we were standing on. At dawn the thrushes will come out on the road, giving good views. I could have gone back down to camp and been happy at this point! Then we heard a Western Chat-Tanager singing behind us. It flew down and made a brief appearance in a near by tree. Since it came in from Haiti, it made two country lists! Several more thrushes flew down to the road and back up into the brush and trees. A Red-legged Thrush, a very common bird in the DR, but one I had not seen yet, joined a La Selle's. Two small dark birds hopped out, two Black-faced Grassquits.

Kate said the Grassquits were a new species to that area. Unfortunately this is not a good thing.  They had moved in in response to the rampant de-forestation. The destruction of the forest was not quite as obvious at first glance on the Dominican Republic side. The Haitian side of the border had obviously been stripped of almost all usable trees. The DR side still had a lot green. It even looked lush, but when I looked closely I could see that most of the large trees were gone. Kate said there was a big problem with people cutting the trees for charcoal. The charcoal is used in Haiti for cooking. Its difficult to be upset with people who are barely surviving, but great damage is being done. Kate said that there had been the same problem in the DR, but it was solved fairly easily; propane stoves were distributed and propane gas was subsidized. I am not sure how propane would be provided in Haiti, particularly now, but it does seem like a good idea. The problem was given a very personal face when we saw a Dominican soldier pushing an Haitian man, barefoot and ragged. He had been caught cutting wood. The soldier stopped to talk to Kate. He jestured towards his prisoner and then smacked him on the back of the head. I have wondered ever since what happened to that young man.

We continued working the road and added Hispaniolan Trogan, both Green-tailed Ground-tanger and Hispaniolan Highland Tanager. Pairs of Hispaniolian Parrots flew over, calling loudly. As the weather warmed we watched for Golden Swallows. Finally I picked one out over the Haitian hills. It was high up, but banked and I saw the beautiful golden color on the back. Hispaniolian Emeralds were feeding in the native fuschias. I was totally in love with the Hispaniolan Spindalis. Another Black-faced Grassquit appeared in some seeding bamboo. We got a great look at a Narrow-billed Tody and a Hispaniolan Pewee. Kate suggested we move a bit higher into the pine forest. A endemic form of Pine Warbler is found there, which we quickly picked up. It was an excellent morning! The clouds started to roll in, which would lead to reduced visibility, so we started back.

We were hoping to pick up a few more birds lower down. Interestingly, we moved through more pine forest below the broad leaf cloud forest area. We came to a park house where we saw the solider that we had seen earlier, along with another, and about a dozen Haitian prisoners. Normally Kate would have stopped here, but it didn't seem wise. We went further down to the Aguacate post house and did stop. This is where I walked into Haiti. I didn't go far, but I can say that I have been in the country. A flock of a dozen or so Greater Antillean Grackles popped up and down the field below us. Kate said a Loggerhead Kingbird sometimes hung around behind the house, but we had no luck calling it in. I did see several fabulous butterflies, which I photographed. We drove back to camp, stopping several times to try for one of the "biggies", Bay-breasted Cuckoo. Unfortunately we dipped on this one, but I was still more than satisified.

I slept very well that night. We birded around the camp until about 10:00 AM, trying to find White-fronted Quail Dove, again with no success. We did hear Antillean Piculet twice, but had no luck in seeing it. We had the same luck with Flat-billed Vireo. We were getting ready to get in the car, when Kate heard an Antillean Euphonia. I was thrilled to pick it out in the back of a tree. We decided to head to a beach near Baharona called San Rafael, for lunch. The drive down was very interesting. I loved the little villages with brilliantly colored houses build of curved boards from palm trees. I saw a bird in a palm tree that I thought was a Palm Crow. We made the mistake of turning around and it turned out to be dark Rock Pigeon. This actually was a stroke of luck. We ended up driving down to the beach on a different road. The view was stunning! Kate said she had never driven in that way, but would start doing so in the future.

San Rafael is east of Baharona. The beach has a long slow curve, between two cliffs. The beach is stony and there are wicked rip tides. It was the most beautiful stretch of water I have ever seen. the water is a mind bending turquoise. The foam on the waves is whiter than white. A group of small shacks sits in the shade of palm trees, where a small river comes into the see. Stone walled pools have been built, catching the river water, enabling people to swim. Unfortunately the stone wall of the final pool was broken, so the water levels were really low. It looked like it was being rebuilt. We walked up to one of the shacks and Kate asked what they had. The woman who was cooking pulled out two huge lobsters. We asked the price and decided it was a bit more than we wanted to pay. She then showed us a sea bass and told us the price. We decided that was exactly what we needed. We sat in the shade at one of the tables and watched the sea for birds. I was extremely surprised at how few there were. The only species we saw were Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns. There wasn't a single shorebird on the beach A guy with a parasail floated down from the cliffs above us, drawing the local children in. It almost made up for the lack of birds. Our fish arrived, flanked by rice and pigeon peas and fried plantains. It was very hard to leave.

We drove back to Santo Domingo and saw a few more birds. We added Turkey Vulture and Magnificent Frigate-bird. We went by the rental car place and they took me back to the Mercure. This day was a bit shorter on birds, but I throughly enjoyed it! Kate had made my trip, not just with the birds, but with all the information about the Dominican Republic and its people. I highly recommend her. Her web site is

Photos for the two days:
Bird list:
Least Grebe
Magnificent Frigatebird
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron
Cattle Egret
American Kestrel
Common Moorhen
Royal Tern
Rock Pigeon
Scaly-naped Pigeon
Plain Pigeon
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Common Ground-dove
Hispaniolan Parakeet
Olive-throated Parakeet
Hispaniolan Parrot
Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo
Hispaniolan Nightjar-heard
Antillean Palm Swift
Antillean Mango
Hispaniolan Emerald
Hispaniolan Trogan
Broad-billed Tody
Narrow-billed Tody
Hispaniolan Woodpecker
Antillean Piculet-heard
Hispaniolan Wood-pewee
Stolid Flycatcher
Gray Kingbird
Flat-billed Vireo-heard
Golden Swallow
Rufous-throated Solitaire
La Selle's Thrush
Red-legged Thrush
Northern Mockingbird
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Pine Warbler
American Redstart
Black-and-white Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Green-tailed Ground-tanger
Hispaniolan Highland-tanager
Black-crowned Palm Tanager
Western Chat-tanager
Hispaniolan Spindalis
Black-faced Grassquit
Greater Antillean Bullfinch
Greater Antillean Grackle
Hispaniolan Oriole
Antillean Euphonia

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