4/7/2022 - 4/14/2022
If you did not see a Palmchat, you were not in the Dominican Republic. Not only is the Palmchat endemic to the country, it is ubiquitous and conspicuous. In other words, it is very common and noisy.
I am getting a bit ahead, though. Carmen and I were going to spend a week in "the DR" (as our driver and many others referred to their homeland). She "won" us a week's stay in Punta Cana when she bid on it during a silent auction for charity. She did not plan to win it. The Dominican Republic was not even on our our wish list of places to visit. Not that I have anything against the country; I just had other places higher on my list. This only meant one thing - it was time to learn about the birding there.
The birding is somewhat fantastic, on paper. 32 endemic species. Several regional (Caribbean) endemics. The island also hosts several wintering migrant species. Unfortunately, it is a bit of an effort to get around the island to see all the endemics. For various reasons, I had put off planning a bit too long, and that cramped things a bit more. We would not have had time to get everywhere, regardless, but my procrastination meant we would not be able to get a guide in some of the more endemic-rich areas of the country. Luckily, I managed to get a guide and a place to stay in the Los Haitises area, where a couple of cool endemics can be found.
However, most of this trip was not going to be a birding trip. I guess that is a thing? We had a beach day planned, followed by a ride out to Sabana de la Mar that evening. Two days of birding in Los Haitises and a trip back to Punta Cana the following day. We would relax and hang out at the condo that day. The following morning, we would day-trip to the capital, Santo Domingo, where we would visit Tres Ojos, the Botanical Gardens (birding!!), and then make a quick stroll through the colonial district to see the architecture.
First Impressions -
As I mentioned, the Palmchat is common and noisy. It is hard to miss. It was not actually our first endemic of the trip, though. That would be the Hispaniola Woodpecker. The woodpecker competes with the Palmchat for most commonly seen bird during our time on the island. Sure, we saw larger numbers of other species (like Antillean Palm Swift), but these two were everywhere we went. It was nice to knock two endemics off the list without even trying. When we got to the condo, there was a Hispaniola Lizard Cuckoo in the parking lot. Things were looking good. Then we went out to eat, and it took almost 3 hours to get our food. So, things balanced out real quick.
Beach Time -
Well, the beach went about as I guessed it would. My plan was to nap. My beach plans always consist solely of napping. Carmen has a long history of preventing me from napping on beaches. I did not get a nap this trip. If you are a tourist on Bavaro Beach, and you are not firmly ensconced in a beach chair at a hotel/resort, you are a target. The condo we were staying at was not on the beach. We Ubered there and found an open spot where we could lay down towels and relax. We were targets. Relaxation was not allowed. We had to talk to several people. People selling things; like time shares, where we could have a chair and an umbrella. We finally got up and just walked the shore, but that meant we had to talk to a representative for every place we walked by. So... beaches, yeah.
Sabana de la Mar-
When we flew into the DR, I was looking out the window and remarking how beautiful the island looked. Lush mountains and valleys sweeping down to shorelines. It looked like an area I wanted to go and bird. Luckily, I would be. By coincidence, we flew in right over Sabana de la Mar (Savannah of the Sea). We had a driver pick us up in Punta Cana and drive us out. The scenery on the drive was pretty. We got in late and met Halle Jackson, our guide, at a local restaurant. There, we ate and chatted about our plans for our time in the area. Most of our time would be spent in Los Haitises; specifically, we would be birding the area around Cana Hondo. Cana Hondo is a magnificent looking hotel in the forest. There are trails and pastures in the area. What it is better known for is the spring-fed pools that dot the landscape around the hotel. You can swim in these. The hotel itself is built into the surrounding mountain using a lot of natural stonework. It is a pretty cool looking place.
During our time here, we would be targeting two endemics specifically: Ridgway's Hawk and Ashy-faced Owl. The other endemics in the area were more common and would require little effort. That proved mostly true.
We started early-ish the first morning. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I could see the Gray Kingbirds and Palmchats flying around A Helmeted Guineafowl walked by. Bananaquit were hopping around in the bushes. So, what was my first bird pic of the trip?
Carmen has a bit of a history with this bird, and it was a magnificent looking bird in good light. So, why not? As for Carmen's story, well, we were visiting Puerto Rico a number of years ago, and we were doing a day-trip to Culebra. Carmen had seen the species list for the island and thought that Red Junglefowl sounded exciting and exotic. She could not wait to see one; I chuckled silently in anticipation of her learning what the bird really was. Imagine her disappointment when we got there and I started pointing at the chicken crossing the road and yelling about junglefowl.
Anyway, our first target of the morning proved to be our hardest. Ridgway's Hawk is a critically endangered, endemic. Los Haitises is the best place to find the hawk. As we walked the area, we got lucky and heard the bird almost immediately. Halle stopped and immediately threw his arms in the air in surprise. From there, the hunt was on. It was just not a very successful hunt, at first. We moved back and forth from area to area, trying to track the bird down as it called. We eventually figured out we were chasing two different birds. We also eventually figured out that the birds were hiding in plain sight. At the tops of two nearby palm trees, there were large Palmchat nests. The hawks were flying up and landing on top of the nests (completely invisible from below) and then calling. I managed a couple pics of the bird, but nothing spectacular.
With the main target out of the way, we birded around until lunch, headed back out for a couple hours and then broke until evening. We easily found the common endemics for the area; except for Hispaniola Pewee. It was not in its usual spot the entire day. That evening, we headed back out for the other uncommon endemic in the area, Ashy-faced Owl. Much like the hawk, we heard the bird screech shortly after we arrived in the area. I had packed a flash with a remote specifically for the chance to photograph this bird. I did not have much of a chance, but I was pretty happy with the results. Hats-off to Carmen for being the "flash assistant". She held the off-camera flash for me.
Halle indicated that there was about a third of the island's endemics in the area. We would rack up 10 of them before leaving. Overall, not bad. Our only miss of the day was the Hispaniola Pewee.
I got pics of various quality of about every endemic, and some of the other birds, too. I do not have a lot of pics, though. I struggled a bit with finding cooperative subjects. Hummingbirds were not even an option. Most species, I got one or two shots of. The birds just did not sit still long. Oh well, it was good to see them. Here is what I got from the first day.
As cool as the hawk and owl were, I was particularly happy to get a good shot of the Broad-billed Tody. One of the disappointments of this trip is that I would not be able to get to see both endemic tody species. The Narrow-billed is higher up in the mountains, and we would not be getting there. This was my third species of tody, and I was happy to see it. Someday, I will get to the last two. Regarding the Village Weaver. Yes, they are invasive. They are really cool though, and it was fun to watch them weave nests for a bit.
The next day, we started by trying to track down Hispaniola Emerald, again. We had seen a beautiful male the day before, but he escaped without a photo. We saw a distant female a couple times this morning, but the male was nowhere to be found. As we were leaving, we heard a bird call behind us, and I turned back to see what it was. At that moment, a female emerald zipped up to a nearby flower and quickly drank. As she did, the light hit her just right and the feathers above her eye blazed with iridescence. She fanned her tail wide; showing off the beautiful white patches in the light, and then she was gone. Frankly, it was amazing. We stood dumbfounded for a minute and then talked about how crazy it was to catch her sneaking in behind our backs. We tracked town the odd call a few minutes later and had a Stolid Flycatcher for the day.
We checked for the Hispaniola Pewee, but it still was not around.
The main activity of the day was a boat ride. The day was blazing hot, and we were glad to be on a boat. Our target for the morning was West Indian Whistling-Duck. The duck is a Caribbean endemic. We rode a huge boat out into the mangroves. It was super long, and we were the only people on it. It seemed so odd. The sun was high by the time we got out onto the boar. The photos suffered for it. Not much to be done about patchy, harsh lighting. It was still good to find them.
The rest of the boat right was nice but relatively uneventful. We saw a nesting colony of Great Egret. We found an uncommon Great Blue Heron. We heard Black-whiskered Vireo and managed a sighting or two of American Redstart. We would finish the trip with 6 species of warblers; not a bad start for my spring list. Single birds of both Night-Heron species and a few Little Blue Heron were spotted in the mangroves. There were Royal Terns resting on old pier supports, and Magnificent Frigatebirds haunting the skies above us. All in all, pleasant, but not conducive to photos. The highlight was the nesting colony of Cave Swallow. Living up to their name, they were nesting in some caves in the sides of some large, rocky outcrops sticking out of the water. This also meant it was pretty dark in the area, and I struggled, again, for photos. While watching them, I was excited to spot a few Caribbean Martins flying about. We finished the boat trip with a visit to a cave.
The cave was used by indigenous people as a temple. Inside, there were pictographs hundreds of years old. Halle told us abut them and some of the history of the island. It was the standard, sad tale of invading explorers "discovering" lands and enslaving the populations for their needs. The pictographs even showed ships and men with crosses. Shortly after the arrival of the Spanish, the pictographs stopped.... We listened and learned. I took pics of some of the bird pictographs, naturally.
For lunch this day, Halle had arranged a special treat. His mother was cooking lunch for us. It was the best meal we had while there. It was a simple meal of chicken in some sort of broth with beans and rice. For drinks, there was blackberry juice. It was amazingly good. Whereas most the food we had on the island was pretty bland, this was great. I am always nervous about eating at people's houses, but I am glad we did this. Afterwards, we headed back out for birding. In all honesty, Halle was struggling a bit for targets. We had seen most the endemics of the area (except that darn pewee) and the common birds. There were a couple of pigeon species I needed that could be found in the area. We set out combing the roads and pastures for pigeons. As the day drew close to a close, we were standing in a pasture when we heard a pigeon calling. We were able to track the bird down, and I scored one last lifer before we left the area. A Plain Pigeon was calling from high up in a tree. We watched it watch us for a bit before it flew off.
As we walked out of the pasture, I noticed a somewhat familiar looking plant. It looked like something we had a kids; a plant we had bought with our own money from working at a greenhouse. What kind of plant does a kid buy? Well, it was called a "sensitivity plant". I do not know the actual name. When you touch it, the leaves fold and the stalks droop. They eventually open back up. As a kid, that seemed pretty cool. A quick touch confirmed my suspicion. They were the same plant. I am not a great videographer, but here it is in slow mo.
We had dinner at Cano Hondo, and called it a day. Still no pewee; it was going to go down as a miss for the trip. The best pics of the day came from a pair of tody just outside the cave entrance.
The following morning, our driver picked us up at nine. On the way out our Halle's drive, I got a message from him. The pewee was there that morning.... Sometimes, it is just not meant to be. We were back in Punta Cana a bit before noon. We relaxed and repacked things in prep for out next day-trip.
We had an early start for the day. We wanted to get in early and hit Tres Ojos before it got busy, and it got very busy as we were leaving. Tres Ojos (Three Eyes) is a national park in the outskirts of they city. It consists of four (yeah, not sure why the park name says "three",) cenotes. A cenote is basically a collapsed limestone cavern with a pool of water in the bottom. The water here was crystal clear and stark blue. Paths lead around the rims of the cenotes, and a set of stairs led down into them. You could take a small hand-ferry to the fourth cenote through a natural tunnel. Neat. Pretty. Hot; very hot. There is no airflow down in the cenotes. We spent bit over an hour here. For me, the highlight was a small warbler flock where we got to see Ovenbird and Black-and-white Warbler.
From here, we headed to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens were my hope for one last endemic before leaving the island. Hispaniola Parakeet are a common sighting here. It had just stopped raining as we arrived. A quick, heavy downpour hit as we drove here from Tres Ojos. We got into the park, and it was hopping with activity. The palm swift were busy jetting in and out of the large palms in the middle of the park. Doves and Palmchats were flying about. Greater Antillean Grackles were displaying everywhere. Mockingbirds were singing up a storm. What I did not hear or see were parakeets. No problem, we will just walk about. From there, a comedy of errors ensued.
The short version goes like this. We walked in circles a lot. We got poured on, but we had rain jackets. Then the sun came out, and we were pouring sweat in our jackets. While I was wrestling to get mine off, a flock of parakeets flew over. In my struggles, I dropped the only water bottle we had with us and broke it. No water. We finally tracked down the parakeets, and they were back at the entrance where we had walked by earlier. Carmen really wanted some water and a snack; so, we spent the next hour trying to track down a cafeteria on the map she had downloaded. It does not exist. She asked an employee about it, and he insisted on fetching us glasses of water to drink. He finally explained that there are a couple of places for water, but mentions the water might not be safe? We waked in more circles. Giving up, I asked Carmen for a few more minutes to try and grab some photos before we head off to lunch. I finally managed some good Palmchat shots. I got a really poor parakeet photo, but at least I got one. As were were heading out, I spotted a Red-legged Thrush. It was our last species of the trip, and it reminded me of the bird my brother and I got to shoot in Florida a few years ago. Here is what I got for the day.
We headed toward the coast and had lunch with the driver at Adrian's Tropical. Not bad. It was some of the better food we had this trip. Afterwards, we headed to the colonial district and walked the square and around some of the old buildings. In the center of the square was a giant statue of Christopher Columbus. These things always sit a bit odd with me. Naturally, the statue was upon a large pedestal. Unnaturally, a half-naked indigenous woman was positioned at the foot of the pedestal; reaching up longingly towards the man responsible for their enslavement. We toured a church. Got to see Columbus's house. Our driver even stopped and played a merengue with some musicians on the square. Our final sight of the day was an impounded super yacht belonging to a Russian who had been sanctioned by America. The Flying Fox was indefinitely grounded in the marina at Santo Domingo. Just another sign of these crazy times.
It was getting on towards evening as we approached Punta Cana. In the distance, we could see several large fires burning. As we got closer, my suspicions were confirmed. Several sugar cane fields were being burned. Nothing nefarious. It is a common practice shortly before harvesting. The fires were immense and a bit eerie. It would have been nice to stop and get pics, but that was not an option. We had one final dinner in Punta Cana and called it an early night. We had a long day of travel home ahead of us.
While it was not an all-out birding trip, I did not do too bad. 57 species for the trip. 16 lifers; 11 were endemics and 3 were regional endemics. Hard to complain. All in all, the birding was a bit slow and repetitive. I saw where some tours to see all the endemics lasted as little as 3 days. A more typical tour length seemed to be about 5. It is hard to speak about the areas closer to Haiti, where most the endemics are located, but 2 days in Los Haitises was a bit too much. A day and a half would have been plenty. Then again, I did miss the pewee, there. Hard to say... you win some/you lose some.
Thanks for reading,