DOMINICAN REPUBLIC & PUERTO RICO BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 1 Our tour begins this afternoon at the airport of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic that occupies much of the island of Hispaniola. We will head westwards from Santo Domingo toi Barahona for an overnight stay.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 2 We will spend much of the day birding in the region surrounding Barahona (see below for full details) and then climb into the western part of the Sierra de Bahoruco to Barrancoli Camp for a two nights stay.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 3 We will leave early this morning in order to reach the upper elevations of the rugged Sierra de Bahoruco by dawn. Here the forest is wetter than lower down and the evergreen broadleaf trees are covered with a heavy load of bromeliads, vines and other epiphytes. In this far western area of the Dominican Republic we are close to the border with Haiti and the high mountains are often shrouded in clouds.
The ethereal song of the lovely Rufous-throated Solitaire fills the crisp morning air and resplendent endemic Hispaniolan Trogons perch quietly amidst the emerald foliage. Endemic Narrow-billed Todies replace their lowland cousins and the endemic Western Chat-Tanager, a large species that looks and behaves more like an Asian babbler than a tanager (and which is now treated as a member of a distinct bird family by some authorities), skulks in the dense undergrowth. The greatest prize here in these cool montane forests is Hispaniola’s most sought-after endemic bird, the secretive La Selle Thrush, which was unknown to science until Alexander Wetmore discovered the species in 1927 on Morne La Visite in Haiti. We stand the best chance of seeing this elusive bird at dawn (or dusk), when it tends to be less retiring and may be located by listening for its loud carolling song.
Other endemics that we will be wanting to find in these humid, high-elevation forests of the Dominican Republic include the shy and timid White-fronted (or Hispaniolan) Quail-Dove, Hispaniolan Emerald, the attractive White-winged Warbler and the unobtrusive Green-tailed Warbler. The latter two species were formerly placed in the parulid or American wood warbler family, then considered tanagers and renamed Hispaniolan Highland Tanager and Green-tailed Ground Tanager respectively, and more recently often treated as two out of four members of their own family, Calyptophilidae.
We shall also explore the dry pine habitat on the south-facing slopes of the Sierra de Bahoruco. The most surprising and unexpected species here on this Caribbean island is surely the endemic Hispaniolan Crossbill. With a bit of luck we should find this species cavorting in the pines or coming down to drink at a favourite pool, sometimes with the perky endemic Antillean Siskin. Handsome Golden Swallows (now extinct on Jamaica and so endemic to Hispaniola) often patrol the forested ridges while Hispaniolan Parakeets screech as they fly past and Hispaniolan Palm Crows utter their raucous calls from the treetops. Additional species in this partt of the Dominican Republic may well include Sharp-shinned and Red-tailed Hawks, and Pine Warbler.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 4 After a final day in the Sierra de Bahoruco we will descend to the Barahona region of the Dominican Republic for a three nights stay (spending two nights in total at Barahona and one at Pedernales).
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Days 5-6 The dry woodland of the lower and middle altitudes of the Sierra de Bahoruco offers some exciting birding. Most of the trees are draped in black, moss-like bromeliads and the undergrowth consists of dense, thorny scrub. The stunning Broad-billed Tody, with its grass-green crown and upperparts, cherry-red throat patch, lemon belly and bubble-gum pink flanks must surely rank as one of the world’s most beautiful birds. It is one of just five members of the tody family, Todidae, which is restricted to the Greater Antilles. Other Hispaniolan endemics found here include Hispaniolan Amazon, the bizarre Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, the rare and declining Bay-breasted Cuckoo (still used in traditional medicine by the local inhabitants), the attractive Antillean Piculet (belonging to the monotypic genus Nesoctites), the adaptable Hispaniolan Woodpecker, Hispaniolan Pewee, Flat-billed Vireo, Black-crowned Palm-Tanager and the beautiful Hispaniolan Spindalis (or Hispaniolan Stripe-headed Tanager).
We will also be on the lookout for more widespread Caribbean specialities such as Scaly-naped (or Red-necked) and White-crowned Pigeons, the smart Zenaida Dove, Antillean Mango, the tiny Vervain Hummingbird (found also in Jamaica), the smart Red-legged Thrush, Antillean Euphonia and Greater Antillean Bullfinch.
Birds of wider distribution may well include the retiring Ruddy Quail-Dove, the introduced Jamaican Parakeet, Bananaquit and an array of wintering wood-warblers including Black-and-white, Prairie, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Cape May and Palm Warblers, Ovenbird and American Redstart.
In the lowlands, patches of Royal Palms provide nesting sites for Hispaniola’s most interesting endemic, and sole member of its family, the strange Palmchat. These noisy and garrulous birds, which are distant relatives of the waxwings and silky flycatchers, build large communal nests of dead twigs. The strange White-necked Crow also favours areas with Royal Palms. Now extinct in Puerto Rico, and so endemic to Hispaniola, the species is easily recognizable by its loud and liquid calls, its peculiar, leisurely flight and its bright red eye. Minute Antillean Palm-Swifts nest here as well, flying in and out of their saliva-cemented nest constructions, which are attached to the undersides of the palm fronds, while the localized and retiring Plain Pigeon (endemic to the Greater Antilles) is another devotee of palm groves and Caribbean Martins often hunt for insects in the vicinity.
In a large depression west of Barahona lies the saline Lago Enriquillo, the largest lake in the entire Caribbean, not just the Dominican Republic. Once an ocean bay, but later cut off by geological events, its surface lies now over 40m below sea-level. The brackish Lago Enriquillo and nearby Laguna Rincon often hold a small flock of colourful American Flamingoes, as well as the crepuscular West Indian Whistling-Duck, White-cheeked Pintail and American Coot.
Amongst the many other waterbirds are Pied-billed and Least Grebes, Brown Pelican, Great Blue, Little Blue, Tricolored and Green Herons, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Western Cattle, Great and Snowy Egrets, White and Glossy Ibises, Roseate Spoonbill, Blue-winged Teal, American Coot, Black-necked Stilt, Grey (or Black-bellied), Semipalmated and Snowy Plovers, Killdeer, Spotted, Solitary, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Laughing Gull and Gull-billed, Caspian and Royal Terns. Additional species in this region of the Dominican Republic may well include Turkey Vulture, Western Osprey, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Mangrove Cuckoo, Belted Kingfisher and Northern Waterthrush. Visiting Magnificent Frigatebirds forage over the lagoons.
Lago Enriquillo is surrounded by desert terrain reminiscent of Arizona, and partly cultivated area. In this interesting part of the Dominican Republic the major speciality is the endemic Hispaniolan Oriole, while other species of interest include Stolid Flycatcher, Grey Kingbird, Yellow-faced Grassquit and Greater Antillean Grackle. Northern Mockingbirds perch atop roadside bushes and White-winged and Mourning Doves, Common Ground-Doves and Smooth-billed Anis abound.
In the nearby xerophytic scrub zone we can expect to find Smooth-billed Ani, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Kingbird and Black-whiskered Vireo. Small colonies of introduced Village Weavers occur near some of the small human settlements.
The area offers some exciting nightbirding as well and we shall be making a serious effort to obtain views of the inscrutable endemic Ashy-faced Owl, the diminutive endemic Least Poorwill, the very vocal endemic Hispaniolan Nightjar and the splendid Northern Potoo.
We will also follow a track into the higher reaches of the eastern part of the Sierra de Bahoruco in search of the hard-to-find endemic Eastern Chat-Tanager. It differs only subtly in plumage from Western Chat-Tanager, but has a different song. It favours evergreen shrubbery at the edge of montane forest.
Some seawatching along the south coast of the Dominican Republic may produce sightings of the elegant White-tailed Tropicbird and distant Black-capped Petrels and Audubon’s Shearwaters. Cave Swallow may also be seen.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 7 After a final morning in the Barahona region we will drive via Santo Domingo to Los Haitises National Park in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic for a two nights stay. Sea cliffs near Santo Domingo, which we will visit en route, hold colonies of Cave Swallow and sometimes a few elegant White-tailed Tropicbirds.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 8 Ridgway’s Hawk used to be a widespread raptor on Hispaniola, but habitat loss through large-scale clearance for livestock farming and coffee plantations, together with direct persecution, led to a disastrous decline. This once-common endemic is now virtually confined to Los Haitises National Park, which is situated at the head of Samana bay, due north of the Dominican Republic’s capital. We stand a very good chance of encountering this interesting species, which is now considered to be the rarest Buteo on earth, with a surviving population of only 200-250 individuals. It favours the subcanopy and only relatively rarely takes to the sky and rides the thermals as so many other Buteo species do. While we track down this enigmatic species, we will also encounter many other Dominican/Hispaniolan specialities in the process. We also have another good chance for Ashy-faced Owl here.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 9 This morning we will return to Santo Domingo airport and say farewell to the Dominican Republic and the bird-rich island of Hispaniola. We will catch a late morning flight to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. After arrival we will transfer to our hotel in Luquillo, situated at the northeastern end of the island for a two nights stay. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 10 The Caribbean National Forest covers about 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares) in the Luquillo Mountains. This area receives more rainfall than any other locality in Puerto Rico, resulting in the occurrence of a dense rainforest on the lower slopes of El Yunque, a peak which rises to 1065m (3494ft). At higher altitude palm forest takes over and stunted, moss-draped dwarf forest huddles on the highest peaks and ridges. Giant ferns, bamboo thickets and tiny wild orchids are a feature of this reserve, which was severely damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again by Hurricane George in 1998.
The highly endangered Puerto Rican Amazon is now restricted to small and largely inaccessible parts of the eastern Luquillo Mountains and to the Rio Abajo State Forest in north-central Puerto Rico. At the moment there are only about 60 individuals surviving in the wild, as the population was almost wiped out by Hurricane Hugo (in 2000 and 2001 about 25 captive individuals were released in order to augment the surviving population). From our carefully-chosen viewpoint we will have our first chance of observing this rarest of all the Puerto Rican endemics as the birds move between their roost sites and the fruiting trees in which they will spend much of the day.
Berry-bearing trees surrounding the open area at the viewpoint are often raided by families of smart endemic Puerto Rican Woodpeckers and drably-garbed endemic Puerto Rican Tanagers. The Green Mango is a large but rather unobtrusive endemic hummingbird which habitually resides near one of the waterfalls. We should also find such other endemics as Puerto Rican Emerald, Puerto Rican Tody (the third tody of the tour), Puerto Rican Spindalis (or Puerto Rican Stripe-headed Tanager) and Puerto Rican Bullfinch.
We also plan to track down the near-endemic Puerto Rican Screech-Owl (which also occurs on some small islets near Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands). Tremulous trills and fear-inspiring maniacal laughs usually betray the whereabouts of this atypical, eartuft-less member of the genus Megascops.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 11 After another visit to the Caribbean National Forest if need be, we shall explore some dry coastal scrub and the adjacent shoreline before travelling to the far southwest of the island to San German for a two nights stay. Flowering bushes in the northeast of Puerto Rico are often visited by Antillean Crested Hummingbird (of the green-crested race) and Green-throated Carib, two smart hummingbirds that are otherwise restricted to the Lesser Antilles. Other species we could see here include the mean-looking Pearly-eyed Thrasher and Antillean Mango. Brown Boobies sometimes fish in the shallow bays.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 12 Not far from San German is the Maricao State Forest, where we will explore the lush montane environment. This reserve offers us the best chance to observe the rare Elfin Woods Warbler, a species that was only discovered in 1971 in elfin forest in the Luquillo Mountains. It resembles a Black-and-white Warbler, but has a rather different head pattern and favours the sub-canopy of the montane forest.
From dense thickets the emphatic and nasal call of the weird-looking endemic Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo emanates through the forest, and we will try to lure this lethargic and fearless bird into view. Mixed feeding flocks containing such endemics as Puerto Rican Pewee, Puerto Rican Vireo and Puerto Rican Oriole (part of the Greater Antillean Oriole complex) will provide additional entertainment.
We will also search the arid scrubland and mangrove areas of the southwest of the island for the localized and declining endemic Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. This once-common species has been plagued by the arrival of the Shiny Cowbird, a fairly recent colonizer from South America. This nest parasite has chosen the Yellow-shouldered Blackbird as its principal host and now the total population numbers only about 650, in spite of continuous efforts to control the Shiny Cowbird population.
In addition, we will spend some time in the International Biosphere Reserve of Guanica, which is situated on the hilly south coast of the island and protects an extensive area of subtropical dry, near-xerophytic forest. Many of the Puerto Rican endemics and Caribbean specialities are found here, but the handsome endemic Adelaide’s Warbler will certainly steal the show. Other species here should include the rather dull Caribbean Elaenia and the endemic Puerto Rican Flycatcher. Mangrove-fringed pools often harbour Clapper Rails as well as a variety of egrets, herons and migrant waders. At dusk we will hope to hear the whistled ‘whip’ notes of the Puerto Rican Nightjar, a species that, until 1961, when a surviving population was discovered in Guanica forest, was only known from a skin collected in 1888! By carefully using the spotlight, we should be able to study this remarkable bird.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 13 After some final birding in the southwest of the island we will head for the north coast and the town of Arecibo where we will overnight.
Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico: Day 14 Early this morning we will visit the Rio Abajo State Forest where Puerto Rican Amazons have been re-introduced after being exterminated by Hurricane Hugo. We have an excellent chance of seeing this critically endangered species here. Afterwards we shall return to San Juan airport, where our tour ends in the early afternoon.