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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

The Dominican Republic

2024 Narrative

Day 1: We gathered this evening in the courtyard of our Santo Domingo hotel for an evening stroll through the heart of Zona Colonial for a tasty dinner together at El Buho Eatery. After delicious food and a welcome meeting we turned-in for a good night’s rest.

Day 2: Shortly after sunrise we gathered at the National Botanical Gardens for our first real taste of Hispaniolan bird life. As we enjoyed breakfast from the parking lot we watched a group of six Hispaniolan Woodpeckers moving about the treetops, their mechanical movements making them look like windup toys.

Nearby a flock of Hispaniolan Parakeets raced overhead while Antillean Palm Swifts flew in and out of the native Cana Palms (their favorite place to nest). The gardens could be renamed the National Palmchat Gardens as this endemic species is around every corner and in every palm tree. Throughout the morning we soaked up views of this endemic monotypic family, Dulidae, and we managed to see them everyday on the trip. The abundant flowers in the gardens attracted Hispaniolan Mangos and the bee-sized Vervain Hummingbirds for repetitive close views. These same flowers also hosted a Broad-billed Tody, one of everybody’s most wanted endemics.

The lush vegetation at the gardens offers great habitat for wintering Wood-Warblers and we enjoyed views of American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, as well as Black-and-White Warbler, Cape May, and Prairie Warblers. A Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo bounced through the tangles giving short but satisfactory views.

A Black-crowned Palm-Tanager was an introduction to the endemic family of Hispaniolan tanagers, Phaenicophilidae. Stolid Flycatchers called mournfully from the trees nearby. A stream running through the gardens held two West Indian Whistling-Ducks, Common Gallinules with chicks, a Least Grebe, and one each of Spotted and Solitary sandpipers. From the gardens we pushed NE to the Bay of Samana in the karstic hills of northeastern Dominican Republic. We enjoyed lunch and a brief break before heading out for an evening boat trip through the nearby mangroves and incredible magotés (giant limestone pinnacles that rise out from the sea for hundreds of feet) of Haitises National Park. As we snaked through the mangroves along the Rio Cano Hondo we enjoyed close views of West Indian Whistling-Ducks, Little Blue Heron, and both flavors of Night-Herons.

Upon reaching the San Lorenzo Bay we encountered multiple large groups of Whistling-Ducks, totalling 82 individuals.

Nearby, a large mangrove-covered magote provided nesting habitat for Brown Pelicans and courting grounds for Great Egrets. After dinner we went for a walk amongst moonlit limestone cliffs, where we heard two Ashy-faced Owls, but were never able to get views of them. Along the trail we encountered a large Hispaniolan Boa Constrictor, a rarely seen endemic snake.

Day 3: We took an early morning hike to search for the highly endangered Ridgway’s Hawk, whose global population stronghold is here in Los Haitises NP. Along the walk we found several Louisiana Waterthrushes near the headwater of Rio Cano Hondo. A pair of Antillean Piculets flew back and forth across the trail, only stopping for very brief glimpses. In the open fields behind the lodge we watched three Ridgway’s Hawks - an adult and two subadults - flying circuits overhead in morning sunshine. After lunch we headed back to Santo Domingo for a bit of down time and a delicious dinner at Buche Perico in the colonial zone.

Day 4: Today was mostly a driving day but we enjoyed some nice birding at the Las Salinas salt pans and mangroves. At our first stop we watched as two Caribbean Clapper Rails crept through the mangroves at a close distance, stopping to preen and bath right before our eyes. Across the road we found a large group of Least Sandpipers with a lone Semipalmated Plover.

Two American Flamingos strained the waters of the lagoon. These magnificent birds were rescued from a nearby resort and were released here in hope that they’ll take up residence with the wild flock of flamingos and have a second chance at life after having their wings clipped and used as “live decoration” for beachside resorts. So far they’re keeping to themselves, but time will tell.

At the salt farm we enjoyed views of many shorebirds and terns including Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed terns. A giant feeding flock of waders consisted of Great, Snowy, and white morph Reddish egrets. A few Tricolored and Little Blue Herons worked the edges of the feeding frenzy. A Roseate Spoonbill sifted the waters in the back, while a flock of Stilt Sandpipers, both flavors of yellowlegs, and some Black-necked Stilts worked the front edge. A nearby mudflat held two White-rumpled Sandpipers (unexpected at this time of year), a small group of Ruddy Turnstones, and a Black-bellied Plover.

After lunch in Barahona, we finished the long drive to Pedernales, stopping for another early evening boat trip. Here at the Oviedo Lagoon, part of Jaragua National Park, we found large flocks of American Wigeons, a single pair of Blue-winged Teal, and scattered White-cheeked Pintails. American Flamingoes performed well, though their numbers were much lower than years past with no clear reason why. This continues to be a great place to find overwintering species from the North American continent.

A large group of Common Terns mixed with Royal Terns, and an immature Northern Harrier patrolled the shoreline. In the distance a group of three, small, dark terns hovered low over the surface of the water. They looked to be Black Terns, but views were distant so we moved in for a closer look; and to confirm there wasn’t a White-winged Tern hiding in there. Close views revealed three Black Terns, a rarity in Dominican Republic. After documenting our rare find we returned to shore and headed to Pedernales for the night.

Day 5: This morning was chilly high in the mountains above Pedernales. Along the drive we spotted two Hispaniolan Nightjars hunting the road in the van’s headlights. We stopped for a better view but they were shy and retreated to a nearby grove of trees where they sang incessantly. Shortly after sunrise we wandered downslope toward the sound of one of the favorite birds of the trip, a male Hispaniolan Trogon that sat beautifully in the understory of the Hispaniolan pine forest for all of us to admire.

A pair of Green-tailed Ground-Tanagers foraged in the shrubs along the edge of the road, at times approaching so close that our binoculars couldn’t focus on them.

Droves of Hispaniolan Parakeets passed by overhead. Further up the mountain, near the old bauxite mine, we watched six Golden Swallows carving circles out of the sky just overhead. Nearby a small group of Hispaniolan Crossbills called from the trees but they were deep enough into the forest that we couldn’t locate them - the wind didn’t help. Meanwhile, Hispaniolan Parrots and Hispaniolan Palm Crows passed by overhead. Back at the van the crows congregated overhead in the pines, providing great opportunities to study them and listen to their nasally calls. A nearby stock tank provided surface water to local wildlife and we watched Hispaniolan Mangoes chasing each other back and forth around the edges. Common Yellowthroats “smacked” from the reeds within.  A pair of Hispaniolan Euphonias called in the distance and then flew into a bit of play-back. These fabulously colored finches landed overhead as we were preparing to head downslope for a picnic. After said picnic lunch we retreated to the lowlands for the long drive to Hotel Quemaito, a beautiful hotel overlooking the Caribbean Sea from an oceanside bluff. It was here that we parted ways with Manny Jimenes, our local guide and co-owner of Explora EcoTours and said hello to Efrain, one of our local guide for the remainder of the trip.

Day 6: We rose early to enjoy some coffee and breakfast before birding. A short distance from the hotel we turned upslope toward the highland community of Cachote and bumped along in 4x4 vehicles for an hour or so, enjoying the sun rising over the mountains to the east. As we arrived at Cachote the cool morning air and wet vegetation was a stark contrast to the dry heat of the desert lowlands. Ramon, a local birder from the community greeted us. We followed Ramon through the cloud forest to an area where he’s been attracting Ruddy and White-fronted Quail-Doves to his chicken feeding station. Along the trail we had our first glimpses of Eastern Chat-Tanager, one of only two species in the Hispaniolan endemic family, Calyptophilidae. While working to get views of the Chat-Tanagers we were treated to eye level views of a Rufous-throated Solitaire as it sang its ethereal dawn song.

We observed the chicken feeding station for at least an hour, enjoying views of up to five Ruddy Quail-Doves, but sadly the White-fronted never appeared. After lunch we checked in at our accommodations in the town of Duverge and napped off the afternoon heat. In the evening we birded in a nearby agricultural community where we had wonderful views of Antillean Siskins and Hispaniolan Orioles.

A flock of neotropical migrants held American Redstarts and Northern Parulas, as well as Black-and-white, Prairie, Cape May, and Tennessee warblers. We returned to Duverge for dinner and called it an early evening.

Day 7: We departed at o’dark thirty, 3:30am to be precise, in order to make the long and bumpy journey to the highest reaches of Sierra de Bahoruco National Park. For three hours we endured horrendous road conditions in 4x4 vehicles to reach the cloud forest site known as Zapoten, one of the last large tracts of cloud forest on the island and a globally important site for endemic flora and fauna of the Caribbean. Here we found many of our remaining endemic bird targets including LaSelle Thrush which comes to the roadside right at sunrise and then retreats to the forest floor for the rest of the day. This bird is the main reason we have to leave so early in the morning.

Additionally we found Western Chat-Tanager, Hispaniolan Crossbill, Hispaniolan Emerald, Hispaniolan Spindalis, and White-winged Highland-Tanager. A couple lucky folks spotted a White-fronted Quail-Dove as it flushed from the edge of the trail.

Just before lunch we stopped at an overlook to take in the views of Haiti in the distance and we struck gold by finding a Bay-breasted Cuckoo on the adjacent hillside. We were treated to views of this rarity at eye-level for up to ten minutes as it hunted through the treetops, stopping occasionally to broadcast its bellowing calls through the forest. Bay-breasted Cuckoos are not only critically endangered but they’re also cryptic and very difficult to see, so this was a real treat and certainly a highlight of the trip.

The endemic birds of Hispaniola are always a treat to see, but so are the birds from continental North America that call this island their wintering grounds. A notable encounter of the morning was a Bicknell’s Thrush singing from the pre-dawn shadows. The highlands forests of the Dominican Republic are one of the only places this species is known to winter, making it of utmost importance to the conservation of this species.

Day 8: After breakfast we headed to the subtropical dry forest around Puerto Escondido to find our last remaining endemic bird of the Dominican Republic, the Flat-billed Vireo, which we found without issue at our first stop. From here we made our way to the shores of Lago Enriquillo, a hyper saline lake that was a shallow ocean channel flanked by coral reefs only 6,000 years ago, dividing the island of Hispaniola into a north and south Islands. In the desert around the edges of the lake we found multiple Ricord’s Rock Iguanas, a critically endangered lizard whose numbers teeter around 2,500 wild individuals. The holes dug by the iguanas provide important shelters and nesting sites for the endemic Guadalupensis subspecies of Burrowing Owl, which watched us intently as we maneuvered the cactus laden scrub in search of iguanas.

After lunch we said our goodbyes to Efrain and returned to Santo Domingo for our final dinner to celebrate finding all of the endemic species of Dominican Republic and to prepare for our flights home the next day.

eBird Trip Report:

                                                                                                                                                                           - Raymond VanBuskirk

Created: 06 March 2024