The Caribbean – Our Dominican Republic Adventure – March 15-20, 2016

With incredible natural beauty, top resorts, golf courses, and beaches, it’s no surprise that the Dominican Republic is the most visited tourist destination in the Caribbean. But all of that tourist charm isn’t what drove Ross and I to spend more time in the Dominican Republic than any of our previous islands—it was the birds. The Dominican Republic is home to thirty-two endemic bird species and several regional specialties and it was our mission to find all of the country’s endemics in just 5 days’ time.

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Map of Hispaniola with the blue line showing our birding route through the Dominican Republic.

On March 15th we arrived in the Dominican Republic after a quick and painless flight over from Puerto Rico, but once we arrived, things didn’t go quite as smoothly. After arriving at the airport, we headed to the rental car offices to pick up our vehicle. Normally this process doesn’t take very long, but we were informed that the 4WD pickup truck that Ross had booked was not available. This wasn’t a huge surprise as rental car agencies in the DR seem to be notorious for not having 4WD high clearance vehicles on hand, but it was still very frustrating. The employee offered to substitute the truck with a van or other vehicle, but unfortunately they did not have anything with high enough clearance to navigate the mountain roads that we would be visiting. Thankfully, the employee that was working at the rental car office spoke decent English and was able to communicate effectively with us. He also was able to call a few other companies and before long we were shuffled over to the Nelly agency and handed the keys to a Mazda BT-150, but the whole ordeal set us back nearly 2 1/2 hours (!!!) and cost us an additional $125.

At around 2PM we finally got on the road and Ross drove straight to Cano Hondo Eco-Lodge, the site of Ridgway’s Hawk, a Hispaniola endemic. We knew we were in the right spot as soon as we arrived but unfortunately, that was all we knew. The trip reports we had brought with us didn’t tell us exactly where to go and look for the hawk once we got there. We asked several employees if they knew of the hawk’s whereabouts, but each one had a different answer, so we didn’t know who to believe. It was going to be getting dark soon and we were hiking up and down in a race against time, never knowing if we were in the right place. Ross was becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of information and the possibility that we may have to use a day on the back end of our trip to return to this location to get the hawk. Finally we came to a clearing and heard the birds off in the distance. Surprisingly, we had found their territory and soon we had two Ridgway’s Hawks sitting overhead – we had walked passed the area long ago and in fact one of the employees did point us in the right direction, we just didn’t know to believe him! (see trip report at the end of this post for detailed directions and GPS coordinates!)

Presumably a nesting pair of Ridgeway's Hawks!

Presumably a nesting pair of Ridgeway’s Hawks!

A rare and endemic raptor!

A rare and endemic raptor!

With that endemic in the bag, including photos and top notch recordings, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at the lodge while we waited until dark to try for Ashy-faced Owl. The meal, while convenient, was small and extremely overpriced for our standards so we immediately regretted eating there. The only saving grace is that we did get to witness the rather tame White-necked Crow that feeds at the lodge come in for a meal.

Easily our most expensive meal of the trip. Sometimes you do silly things when you are hungry...

Easily our most expensive meal of the trip. Sometimes you do silly things when you are hungry…

Once dark hit, we started back out towards town and made one stop to play the recording of Ashy-faced owl, another Hispaniola endemic. It only took a few minutes until we heard a response in a tree directly overhead and soon spot-lighted a single Ashy-faced Owl sitting on an open branch. To me, owling is probably the most satisfying of all birding adventures. The whole aspect of staying up late and meandering through the dark when I would rather be sleeping is always forgotten when an owl is seen. This particular Ashy-faced Owl had just come back from catching dinner and had a small rodent in his talons. We took a few pictures but he was too interested in his dinner than to vocalize for any audio recordings. Deciding to let him eat in peace, we left the area and Ross drove straight through the night in order to be at our next location on the opposite side of the country by dawn, roughly 8 hours away.

Ashy-faced Owl right above us!

Ashy-faced Owl right above us!

After this photo we left him alone to eat his dinner.

After this photo we left him alone to eat his dinner.

The morning of March 16th I woke up near Villa Barrancoli, parked along the trail Robo de Gato (I had slept through the majority of the drive per Ross’s request.) Somehow when I woke up, Ross was already out birding the trail. In case you haven’t noticed, he is more than willing to sacrifice sleep if he can make up for it in the form of life birds and that morning’s harvest included our three main targets, Bay-breasted Cuckoo, Flat-billed Vireo, and White-fronted Quail Dove, as well as some of the common endemics such as Broad-billed Tody, Narrow-billed Tody, Hispanolian Picculet, and Hispanolian Lizard-Cuckoo. Lucky for me, even though he had found all the birds before I even hit the trail, he was still able to get me on all of them! I really do have my own personal bird guide on these birding adventures!

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Usually one of the hardest endemics to find, we luckily saw this Bay-breasted Cuckoo twice along the trail

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Hispaniolan Emerald

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Broad-billed Tody is an extremely common endemic found throughout the island.

That afternoon we headed into town and purchased our tickets to Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco, home of the Hispanolian endemic La Selle Thrush, located right on the Haitian border. Being so close to the border of a country full of disaster and turmoil, you have to pass through three military checkpoints all with men bearing guns in order to get to the top. The feat of “getting to the top” is much easier said than done – the road to Zapoten is in very rough shape and is one of the main reasons we rented the truck that we had. We made the trip up the mountain with no major difficulties despite it being Ross’s first time driving a manual transmission in steep rocky, rutted loose gravel conditions. I am always amazed at how well he can maneuver vehicles in foreign conditions. The road did not require the use of 4WD but certainly required the high clearance that our truck offered.

Ross Driving

Ross Driving

No photos can do the conditions justice.

No photos can do the conditions justice.  Rest assured, it was a bumpy ride.

At least we had nice views along the way!

At least we had nice views along the way!

Regardless of it being mid-afternoon already, the area was extremely birdy. We parked our car at the ranger station at Zapoten and walked up the rest of the road. Along the way we had great looks at a few more endemics in the form of White-winged Warbler, Green-tailed Warbler, Antillean Siskin, Hispianolian Spindalis, Greater Antillean Elaenia, and Golden Swallow.

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Stolid Flycatcher is more often heard than seen

After only an hour’s time, we weren’t expecting to only have two targets from Zapoten left! Our game plan was to head up to Zapoten again in the morning, but if we could find Western Chat-Tanager and La Selle Thrush today, we would save having to make the treacherous trek up the mountain again. We knew dark would be approaching quickly and that our best chance of seeing the birds would be now. It was unfortunate then that when we heard both species of birds calling, we were unable to see either pair. We thought surely that was a missed opportunity and kept walking with dusk quickly approaching when Ross heard a Western Chat Tanager calling down the hillside. One play of the bird’s call and we had it sitting right next to the trail. Our final target, La Selle Thrush, was flushed from the side of the road providing quick, but recognizable views.

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The sulky, but vocal Western Chat-Tanager

It wasn’t an ideal look, but with those targets in the bag, we headed back down the mountain for a night of camping at Villa Barroncoli (Kate’s camp). Our lodging was our tent set up on a concrete slab.

Yes, our tent is set up on a concrete slab. No, we didn't sleep on anything other than a sleeping bag.

Yes, our tent is set up on a concrete slab. No, we didn’t sleep on anything other than a sleeping bag.

The following morning was somewhat lackluster as we really didn’t add any new species to the trip list, but the weather was perfect before the heat of the sun hit. We spent the morning walking along Rabo de Gato trail and later that afternoon we drove about 3 hours, past the large town of Barahona to the smaller town of La Cienaga to give our rental truck a bit of a more intense challenge than he already had faced. We were going to be climbing up to Cachote Eco lodge via a road that, and I quote Kate on this, “makes the road to Zapoten look like a highway.” We really didn’t know what to expect with that kind of warning, but we were expecting the worst based on the trip reports and being told, “yes, it really is ‘that’ bad.” There would be no reason to go up to Cachote except for the fact that Eastern Chat Tanager, a curious long-tailed under story-type bird, can be found there and really only there. Missing an endemic was out of the question so we started on the 16 kilometer climb up the mountain. Initially we weren’t convinced that the road was going to be that bad because the first 800m of the road was paved and, according to our trip reports, that was supposed to be the most challenging part of the climb. Soon thereafter the road became extremely rough and we had to bite our tongue, the road lived up to all of its hype. The remaining 15 winding and bumpy kilometers were taken very slowly. All was going well until a slight driver error resulted in us getting stuck in a major rut.

Yeah....oops.

Yeah…

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Photo of Ross digging under the truck trying to get ourselves unstuck!

(Ross will tell you that he was driving the truck like he would drive a small car with minimal clearance and attempted to straddle the ruts instead of taking advantage of the truck’s high clearance and just driving with one tire up and one down in the rut.) We were all kinds of stuck and spent the next 45 minutes digging the rear axle out of the rocks. OOPS.

View of the road

A fairly lackluster view of the road

Our truck at the top!

Our truck at the top!

With that minor hiccup behind us, we eventually made it to the top of the mountain and once there it was not hard to find the target Eastern Chat-Tanager. We almost immediately had a pair within feet of us and spent the next couple of hours walking the road and a few of the nearby trails. It was a very enjoyable afternoon and we appeared to have the place to ourselves. We eventually had a second Eastern Chat-Tanager as well as some excellent views of Hispaniolan Parakeet, Hispaniolan Trogon, Hispaniolan Spindalis, Rufous-throated Solitaire, and Narrow-billed Tody. After two hours we wanted to start heading back down while we still had daylight remaining, so we started back down the mountain via the same terrible road that we went up in.

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Hispaniolan Trogon

On the way down we stopped to give the odd island endemic Palm Chat some much-needed attention and watched them at the massive nest that they had built into the top of a palm tree. This particular species is unique in that it is in a genus and family all of it’s own. Ross photographed and recorded them while I simply watched as they frolicked about their communal nest.

Palm Chat at its communal nest.

Palm Chat at its communal nest.

That night was an especially fun night for us as we made our way around the coast before eventually stopping in the small town of Los Patos. No one would have ever heard of it, but if tourists knew about it, they would love it. The town was quaint and charming and we decided this was as good a place as any to stop and eat and spend the night. We spotted a sign for a hotel, but given our budget restrictions, we didn’t stay in the hotel but instead convinced the home owner to allow us to camp in his yard. We negotiated a price and then set out to find a place to eat. There were a few restaurants in town, but a certain straw-roofed restaurant down on the beach that didn’t even look open caught our eye. We decided it would be fun to give that one a try. There was a guy walking on the roof ripping off some of the palm fronds, and presumably the owner’s children were at work collecting the debris and moving them to a pile offsite. I asked one lady if they were open and she said that we could eat there. Without even asking, one man moved a table for me out onto the beach. We truly couldn’t have planned it any better if we had tried. The least inviting place had a heart of gold and that night we dined by moonlight on a beach that we had to ourselves enjoying meals of lobster and parrotfish.

The "restaurant." Note the man on the top fixing the roof.

The “restaurant.” Note the man on the top fixing the roof. Who else would choose to eat here?!

An experience I will never forget.

Best decision of the trip and an experience I will never forget.

All of this (and homemade fries) for only $20USD!

All of this (and the most delicious homemade fries not pictured) for only $20 USD!

We ended our “perfect date night” curled up in our tent during a torrential downpour, but thankfully we managed to stay dry. (One of the downsides of choosing the yard of a hotel as opposed to IN the hotel…) Luckily it stopped raining by morning and we made it up to the famous (among birders at least) Alcoa Road just before dawn. Alcoa Road, appropriately named after Alcoa Mining Corp built it to transfer large trucks to and from a mining site, is a large wide highway that essentially leads to the middle of nowhere. This time to get to the elevation we needed, we had a massive, rarely traveled highway (easily one of the country’s best) to get to the top.

If only getting up and down in elevation were always as east as this.

If only getting up and down in elevation were always as easy as this.

We had hoped to get up the mountain before first light to search for Stygians Owl, but we miscalculated how long it would take to get from Los Patos to Alcoa Road. (Our tardiness was not by any fault of our own, but we based our travel time off of the fact that many birding reports stated that they would stay in Barahona, and we were nearly an hour past Barahona! We figured since we were closer it wouldn’t take as long, but apparently those people weren’t heading up to Alcoa Road for owls.)

Our two main targets for the day were Hispaniolan Palm Crow and Hispaniolan Crossbill. Ross had thought that the crows would be the more difficult of our two targets so we focused on that one first, but it wasn’t long before we had a group of 8 noisy and entertaining Hispaniolan Palm Crows feeding above our heads. Crows, being some of the most intelligible birds, are always fun to watch and we spent some time with them on the open road.

Crows

Crows

A long, wide, well-paved road.

A long, wide, well-paved road.

With one target easily crossed off of our list, our attention was turned towards the crossbills. We spent the entirety of the day (except a mid-day drive down to Perdenales for lunch) between the gated area at the top of the road and the beginning of the mixed forest looking for crossbills. The pine groves became quiet by mid-morning, but the mixed forest at a lower elevation was hopping! This area included Antillean Euphonia, Antillean Piculet, Antillean Siskin, Hispaniolan Pewee, Hispaniolan Parrot, and Hispaniolan Parakeet.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

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Hanging out in "____"

Hanging out at La Charca

We were also successful in getting great recordings of Pine Warblers and seeing a few Golden Swallows flyby overhead. But despite spending the entirety of the day on Alcoa Road, it wasn’t until nearly dusk that Ross had 2 Hispaniolan Crossbills in with a flock of about 20 Antillean Siskins. Don’t let my large life list fool you, I’m not skilled enough of a birder to differentiate those birds in flight from a distance and therefore never had any looks at the crossbills. We contemplated staying until dark to try for the Stygian’s Owl that we didn’t get to try for in the morning, but we were warned by a local that it was unsafe, and Ross, feeling the need to keep his wife out of harm’s way, drove us back to Villa Barrancoli for the night.

Alcoa Road. What a lovely place.

Alcoa Road. What a lovely place.

By this time we were comfortable sleeping on a cement slab with no padding and slept well. We had decided the night prior that we would in fact head back up to Zapoten again in the morning in hopes that we could get better looks at La Selle Thrush and that I could finally see some Hispaniolan Crossbills. We woke up at 4:30 and started on our drive up the very rocky road. Fortunately we arrived at the top in just about an hour (I guess now having the practice of driving up to Cachote, Ross was much more comfortable navigating the only mildly treacherous road.) We waited for dawn near the sign for the thrush, and almost on cue, a La Selle Thrush popped out on the road just as it began to get light. Normally a skulky and secretive bird, I guess early morning the bird throws that habit out the window and is pretty much easy!

A sky-high ISO image of an Hispaniolan endemic!

A sky-high ISO image of a super skulky Hispaniolan endemic (that looks oddly similar to a Robin…)

We continued up in elevation and came to a pine forest where we finally (after about two hours of searching) had the desirable views of Hispaniolan Crossbill that we had hoped for. Ross managed to get a few recordings and photos before we started back down the hill. This time on the drive down we decided to stop at one of the checkpoints (Agua Cate) to search for the pair of Loggerhead Kingbirds that had been reported only two days prior. Sadly, we only managed to find Gray Kingbird, but the stop was extremely birdy and we ended up having excellent views of a cooperative pair of Antillean Piculets and Hispaniolan Pewees. We headed back down the hill, ate a quick lunch, and then headed back to Villa Barrancoli for the afternoon.

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Hispaniolan Pewee

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Antillean Piculet

Before dusk we headed up a small cattle trail that Ross hoped would allow us to finally get a look at Least Pauraque (we had tied every evening/morning for this bird, but up until this point had only heard it). We headed up the hillside during the last half hour of sunlight and were lucky to watch the world fall asleep around us. The daytime birds stopped singing and soon we heard a few of our target night bird, Least Pauraque, up the hillside, so we started to navigate our way up the trail by the light of the moon. Ross played the tape a few times and we would get a response but we would only get glimpses of them flying over. At one point however, we stopped on the trail and perched right above us was a Least Pauraque silhouetted with the moon. It didn’t stay for long and by the time Ross pointed our spotlight in its direction, the bird was gone! While the silhouetted view is not ideal, it felt oddly appropriate to me. Ross wasn’t satisfied so he went deep in the brush chasing down others to get better looks while I sat on a rock under a star-filled sky watching from afar. Ross did manage to spotlight a few, but only with a lot of hard work. I had another view of a pauraque silhouette on a tree while sitting there. It was a great way to end the trip.

The next morning we woke up early and started the 5-6 hour trip back to Punta Cana. The drive was fairly uneventful and we arrived to the airport a few hours before our flight. While Ross packed our bags, I spent an hour relaxing on the beach before we headed to the airport to wait for our flight home. Overall it was a fantastic trip and in just 12 days we had recorded all of the endemics of Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic as well as a ton of other Caribbean endemics.

For a detailed trip report with directions and GPS coordinates for all three islands: Click Here!

One thought on “The Caribbean – Our Dominican Republic Adventure – March 15-20, 2016

  1. You two certainly have a flare for adventures tracking down birds! Glad Ross gave you that hour on the beach while he packed and the rocker while he chased the birds he wanted. It is truly amazing to experience all of this off the tourist trail! The lobster and parrot fish on the beach with the whole beach to yourself is such a blessing. Sometimes when you least expect it, God will just send the birds to you! Melissa your writings are captivating! Thank you for sharing such an awesome adventure!

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