21 – 26 OCTOBER 2017
BY DYLAN VASAPOLLI
Birding Ecotours had long been planning to add the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola to its list of destinations offered. An opportunity to scout the country came up at the end of October 2017 and saw tour leader Dylan Vasapolli undertake it. Although he would be by himself for the majority of the time, he did link up with a few local birders in key areas. That the trip not only was over a short time period and out of the main birding season, but also that it was a scouting trip meant that birding wasn’t the sole focal point, because the birding sites, access to them, overall facilities, and accommodation options also had to be considered.
Despite this, and with no prior travels to the country, the scouting trip was a resounding success. Over 110 species were recorded (on a par with or slightly more than most short tours typically get), and all but two of the country’s Hispaniola endemics were seen (the latter were not possible due to road-access difficulties), including the increasingly rare Bay-breasted Cuckoo and the Critically Endangered (IUCN) Ridgway’s Hawk. Birding in the highlands of the Sierra de Bahoruco, complete with encountering the majority of the Hispaniola endemics in a single day, was the main highlight.
Day 1, 21st October 2017. Arrival in Santo Domingo
After arriving in a bustling Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, I set out to collect a few things I would need for the next few days before heading to the National Botanical Garden in town, where I spent the afternoon searching for the first of the island’s specials.
Numbers of Antillean Palm Swifts greeted me upon arrival, which were followed by the first of many Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, Mourning and Common Ground Doves, Antillean Mango, Northern Mockingbird, and the ever-ubiquitous Bananaquit. It wasn’t long afterwards that I found the country’s national bird, the social Palmchat, which proved to be quite common. Some exploration of the deeper woods produced Red-legged Thrush, Black-crowned Tanager, Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, and American Redstart before a distinct, grating call gave away a Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo. It took some effort to actually see it, but eventually good looks were had. Soon afterwards the soft call of Broad-billed Tody sounded, and it showed far more easily than the cuckoo, giving me some great, close-up views and allowing me to truly appreciate how tiny this species is. A stream running through the garden proved productive as well, delivering the prized West Indian Whistling Duck, one of the best localities for this species, along with Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Green Heron, Snowy Egret, Common Gallinule, and Solitary Sandpiper. Some exploration of the more manicured grounds in the garden delivered a few more species such as Grey Kingbird, Palm and Prairie Warblers, and Yellow-faced Grassquit. Eventually I heard another one of the major targets, Hispaniolan Parakeet, and found a tree with a number of individuals perched inside. This also led me to a calling Vervain Hummingbird, the second-smallest bird in the world, which I found perched atop a tree after quite some effort. I could scarcely believe how small this bird was, appearing as a mere bump on the branch, before leaving the bird be and calling it a day.
Day 2, 22nd October 2017. Santo Domingo to Villa Barrancolí
With a long transfer westward into the Sierra de Bahoruco today I started early to allow me an afternoon to spend exploring the area. The long drive was pretty quiet, with the only notable species being Turkey Vulture, Western Osprey, and American Kestrel, before I arrived in the early afternoon. After arriving in the small village of Puerto Escondido I made my way to the nearby Villa Barrancolí, where I would spend the next two nights.
After settling in I headed out to explore the Rabo de Gato trail. Although the afternoon birding was on the slow side, the river flowing along the trail delivered Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Green Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Louisiana Waterthrush, while the scrubby edges held White-winged Dove, Vervain Hummingbird, Narrow-billed Tody, Hispaniolan Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. The deeper tracts of forest held little besides Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo and Red-legged Thrush, while a section of palm trees had numbers of Antillean Palm Swift along with a few noisy White-necked Crows and many Palmchats. The distinctive sound of parrots broke the silence, and after running to a clearing I enjoyed a small group of both the prized Hispaniolan Amazons and Hispaniolan Parakeets flying overhead. A Key West Quail-Dove began hooting but went unseen despite lots of effort to track it down. The last sighting of the day went to a Plain Pigeon that was seen perched atop a bare branch.
Following a great dinner I met with Rafael, a local guide, to finalize our plans for the following day.
Day 3, 23rd October 2017. Sierra de Bahoruco
We started the morning very early, well before dawn, to allow us to arrive at the break of day in the montane forest of the Zapotén sector of the Sierra de Bahoruco. The track up the mountain was incredibly rough, but the headlights of the car revealed Burrowing Owl and a surprise Greater Antillean Elaenia, and shortly before arriving at Zapotén we enjoyed some great views of the difficult Hispaniolan Nightjar.
After arriving at Zapotén we parked the car and set off on foot. We had a spectacular morning here and were fortunate enough to enjoy practically all the specials of the area. Our first target was the rare La Selle Thrush, and we enjoyed some great views of two birds as they hopped along the tracks as it first began to get light. Soon after we saw our first Green-tailed Warbler and Hispaniolan Spindalis before picking up Hispaniolan Pewee and getting some daytime views of Greater Antillean Elaenia. A clearing in the trees allowed some good, but brief views of a skittish Hispaniolan Trogon along with Hispaniolan Emerald and Narrow-billed Tody, the latter proving to be extremely common in the area. A harsh call gave away Western Chat-Tanager, and we enjoyed some great, close-up views of this elusive species before it melted back into the thicket. We also soon picked up the other prized warbler here, White-winged Warbler, and enjoyed some great views of both this species and its cousin, Green-tailed Warbler, throughout the morning. A large fruiting tree was buzzing with birds, and here we enjoyed the small Antillean Piculet, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Red-legged Thrush, Antillean Siskin, Black-crowned Tanager, Hispaniolan Spindalis, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, Bananaquit, and a number of wood warblers such as Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. A grove of pine trees at the top of the hill delivered a few of the nomadic Hispaniolan Crossbills along with a number of Pine Warblers before we began to make our way back down.
The return trip was much quieter, but we did better our views of Hispaniolan Pewee, Rufous-throated Solitaire, Antillean Siskin, and, surprisingly, La Selle Thrush – we found a single bird feeding on some fruit high up in a tree and enjoyed great views. One bird had been taunting us all morning with its repetitive call ringing more or less constantly, but, try as we might, we just couldn’t lay eyes on it – Antillean Euphonia. We hoped that this would change when we heard another individual close by once we arrived at our car, but it too went unseen.
The track back down was on the quiet side, but we did find the rare Golden Swallow flitting through a clearing, along with Sharp-shinned Hawk, Stolid Flycatcher, Vervain Hummingbird, and some of the introduced Olive-throated Parakeets.
Once we reached the drier woodland lower down, near Puerto Escondido, we slowly worked this area for a few different species. First there was a Northern Potoo Rafael inexplicably saw perched on a tree, which was followed by Flat-billed Vireo, which fortunately didn’t prove too difficult to find, and a pair showed well, before we hit the jackpot with the rare Bay-breasted Cuckoo. We had been trying for a while and had followed a number of the similar Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoos before eventually finding one that was just a bit different. Although the bird kept to the thicker areas we enjoyed some great views of it as it slowly moved around, creeping along the branches. Last was Hispaniolan Oriole, which took a little while to find as well, but a fruiting tree produced the goods. Killdeer, Smooth-billed Ani, Merlin, and Yellow-faced Grassquit were added as we went through the village back to Villa Barrancolí for a late lunch.
We headed onto the Rabo de Gato trail for the afternoon period, which saw us add a few more species. The prized White-fronted Quail-Dove was our first target, and, after patiently scanning the forest floor, we found a confiding individual. Antillean Euphonia followed, and this time we were fortunately able to get eyes on this species as it moved around the high canopy. Some other species seen here included Limpkin, Scaly-naped Pigeon, White-necked Crow, Hispaniolan Amazon, Hispaniolan Parakeet, and Ovenbird.
After dark a night walk produced a vocal Least Poorwill, but, try as I might, I was unable to lay eyes on the bird.
Day 4, 24th October 2017. Villa Barrancolí to Los Patos
I began the morning with another walk along the Rabo de Gato trail. It was a good morning, with numbers of Plain Pigeons perching atop the canopy, while both Broad-billed and Narrow-billed Todies kept lower down in the thicket. Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo, Antillean Piculet, Antillean Euphonia, and Greater Antillean Grackle all worked the scrubby edges, while noisy Hispaniolan Amazons regularly flew overhead. Limpkin and Green Heron worked the river, with a Stolid Flycatcher keeping watch from an exposed perch.
Following a good breakfast I set off for the southern coastline of the Pedernales Province. The drive was pretty quick, and a brief stop at Lago de Oviedo delivered American Flamingo and Roseate Spoonbill, although they remained distant, before I arrived at Cabo Rojo for more wetland/coastal birding.
The birding here was excellent, and scanning in between the various tidal lagoons, brackish ponds, and the ocean delivered Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, much closer views of American Flamingo, American White Ibis, Great, Reddish, and Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Heron, Least Bittern, Brown Pelican, numbers of Brown Boobies, Western Osprey, Black-necked Stilt, Grey Plover, Stilt Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Royal Tern. Grey Kingbirds perched along the powerlines together with American Kestrel and Merlin, while Barn and Cave Swallows flitted overhead and a brilliant Mangrove Warbler kept to a stand of bushes.
The Alcoa Road was next on the cards, although I was unable to access the upper reaches due to the road deteriorating. So I had to make do with Smooth-billed Ani and Peregrine Falcon, hoping to run into Hispaniolan Palm Crow at a later stage.
The rest of the afternoon saw me make my way back to the coast to Los Patos, where I spent the night.
Day 5, 25th October 2017. Los Patos to Sabana de la Mar
I started early to make my way toward Cachote, where the principal target would be Eastern Chat-Tanager. However, both of the entry roads were inaccessible and I had to depart the area empty-handed. I cut my losses and decided to rather use the extra time around Los Haïtises National Park searching for the critically endangered Ridgway’s Hawk.
Following a long drive across the country I arrived in the mid-afternoon at Sabana de la Mar, adding Red-tailed Hawk, White-collared Swift, and the introduced Scaly-breasted Munia en-route. A quick search along the beachfront delivered many Magnificent Frigatebirds along with Western Osprey, Royal, Cabot’s, and Common Terns, and Killdeer before I headed to the nearby Caño Hondo Hotel.
After checking in I met the local guide, Juan, and we headed out in search of the prized special of the area, Ridgway’s Hawk. We had just begun when we heard a loud raptor call, and Juan immediately confirmed that this was our target. We didn’t have to go far before we found this great bird perched in the upper strata and enjoyed virtually point-blank views of it for around ten minutes, seeing it from every angle before it took off. Raptors can be very tricky to find at the best of times, and it was with much relief that we found this species so quickly and had such incredible, spectacular views.
With a big load off we explored the wet trails around the hotel for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed the likes of Plain Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani, Antillean Mango, Vervain Hummingbird, Broad-billed Tody, Antillean Piculet, Hispaniolan Woodpecker, Hispaniolan Pewee, numbers of White-necked Crows, Palmchat, Antillean Euphonia, Black-crowned Tanager, Greater Antillean Grackle, and Blackpoll Warbler.
Following a good dinner we headed out to search for Ashy-faced Owl. We searched a number of different spots over the next few hours but were left frustrated, hearing the bird many times but just not being able to see it. Eventually we conceded defeat and called it a night.
Day 6, 26th Oct 2017. Sabana de la Mar to Santo Domingo
I met Juan early in the morning, and we set off to explore a few more trails around the hotel. It was a lively morning, and although we found many of the same species we had seen yesterday, we enjoyed good sightings throughout. Some of the rivers and ponds held Green Heron, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Limpkin, and Northern Waterthrush, while the thicker, taller vegetation surrounding the rivers and coating the hillsides produced Ruddy Quail-Dove, Mangrove Cuckoo, Antillean Piculet, Black-whiskered Vireo, Black-crowned Tanager, American Redstart, and Northern Parula. The more-open areas held Common Ground Dove, White-winged Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Grey Kingbird, Stolid Flycatcher, White-necked Crow, Palmchat, and Greater Antillean Grackle. We also enjoyed a steady stream of birds overhead, including Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon.
We returned back for breakfast, and afterwards I checked out and made my way back to Santo Domingo, bringing the scouting tour to an end.
Overall this was a highly successful scouting trip, not only in terms of enjoying excellent birding throughout in a suboptimal period of the year and finding all but two of the country’s Hispaniola endemics with an additional two being heard only, but also in terms of the logistics in setting up future trips to this fantastic country. I, for one, cannot wait to return!
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species list included.