Tuesday, 6 November 2001

GAMBIA 2001: 26 October-6 November

Introduction. I was very keep to see Egyptian Plover and the Gambia seemed the easiest place to do so, at least during what seemed to be a narrow window towards the end of the year when they appeared on the Gambia River in the far east of the country. I wasn’t able to find others interested, my usual travel companion Nick not being able to have days off in term time, so I ended up going on a Naturetrek Bargain Birding trip. It was affordable, although not quite my idea of a bargain, but joining instructions indicated I’d be in a group of 16 plus guides. This blog is my take on the trip dredging up unreliable memories and illustrated with most of a film of digitised instamatic photos.

Friday 26 October. A morning departure from Gatwick saw us arriving at Banjul Airport early afternoon. Once through and were taken to the Senegambia Beach Hotel. I dumped my bag and spent the remaining daylight hours birding in the fairly extensive hotel grounds seeing seven new birds, the best being Bearded Barbet, White-crowned Robin Chat, Yellow-crowned Gonolek and Lavender Waxbills. Also excellent views of a Blue-spotted Wood Dove and Red-billed Hornbill. A decent start made even better by my ‘room share’ Paul being the best I could ask for, although our UK leader Ted wasn’t. He appeared in the hotel grounds after an hour and immediately called me over for a robinchat that was actually a gonolek feeding on the ground. Oh dear. It transpired that he’d only been to coastal Gambia before, hadn’t a telescope, torch or, perhaps harshly, much of a clue. Hopefully our local guides would be better.

Saturday 27 October. I birded in the grounds for an hour before breakfast which didn’t start until 07:00. We left the hotel at 08:00, by which time it was already quite hot, and with a keen young Gambian guide Sering visited Kotu Creek, Bund Road and Old Cape Road stopping somewhere unmemorable for lunch. We saw lots of birds, I recorded 120 species in total, including 14 that were new for me, the best being Senegal Thick-knee, Senegal Parrot, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, the much anticipated Blue-bellied Roller, Moho, Yellow-billed Shrike and Piapiac.

Sunday 28 October. Today we were going to Abuko Forest Reserved, the jewel in the coastal Gambian birding crown, but were again leaving at 08:00, sadly no early or packed breakfasts on this trip. We picked up seasoned guide Soloman for the day and arrived at Abuko soon after 09:00, an hour after the reserve had opened. The entrance sign said serious birdwatching groups could enter at 06:00 by prior arrangement but sadly this wasn’t close to being a serious birdwatching trip as given the heat we’d missed the best three hours of the day. We set off along the main trail, leaders at the front and a crocodile of 12 following. This might be OK in open country but was far from ideal in thick forest. News of what the leaders were seeing was very slow to filter back by which time the bird had usually long gone and the leaders moved on. When I did work my way to the front and stopped to look for something (usually unsuccessfully) I was soon at the back again while everyone else piled past. Very frustrating. Late morning we came out of the forest at the other end of the reserve. Our bus was there and were told we were going to lunch. I’d seen a juvenile White-backed Night Heron and 6 Violet and a Green Turaco but not Yellow-bellied Hyliota or Western Bluebill which was one of my top target birds and only possible at Abuko. Solomon had glimpsed one on our march through Abuko but I’m not sure anyone else had. I enquired of him what the plan was for the rest of the day. After lunch we were going to look for coursers in dried up rice fields at Lamin and would not be returning to Abuko (our itinerary mentioned having a full day there. As lunch was to be a prolonged affair, no point rushing in the heat of the day, and we were returning past Abuko I asked to be picked up back by the entrance to at least give me a couple more hours there. Three others decided to do likewise and we slowly walked back having excellent views of 4 male Western Bluebills on the way, a much more enjoyable experience. Lamin rice fields were flooded, something Solomon should have been aware of, and so completely unsuitable for anything other than egrets although maybe seeing coursers would have been rather hopeful anyway? We saw a Black Heron but little else of real interest there and would have done better returning to Abuko fo rthe afternoon, although perhaps not as a group of 16. We were back at the Senegambia before dark where another circuit of the grounds, enjoyable as it was, produced much the same as before. I’d seen some nice birds including Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-necked Falcon, Levaillant’s Cuckoo and Snowy and White-crowned Robin Chats but we could have done so much better with a more motivated local guide. The next day I was to learn that we’d twice driven past a pair of roosting Northern White-faced Scops Owls in Lamin without bothering to stop to look for them. Shocking. Fortunately we would not see Solomon again.

Monday 29 October. I had my bag packed before dawn, spent 90 minutes in the hotel grounds and immediate vicinity seeing the usual birds and grabbed a few rolls for breakfast before leaving. I was stopped for taking food out of the breakfast area and embarrassed the guy on the door by handing him my half eaten roll. We were leaving the coast for six days with Sering as our guide, today driving inland to Tendaba. Our first stop was Pirang where we found 2 Black Crowned Cranes, a main target, they and an African Pied Hornbill were new. Continuing to Tendaba Camp a superb pair of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills by the road was another important target which showed well. Birding the acacia scrub at Tendaba in the afternoon produced Grey-headed Bush Shrike, White-shouldered Black Tit and Bush Petronia, the last two being new. Other smart birds seen during the day included 3 Bataleurs, 4 Swallow-tailed and 3 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, 3 Rufous-crowned, 4 Blue-bellied, 12 Abyssinian and 2 Broad-billed Rollers and 3 Mohos.
driving inland

Tuesday 30 October. We spent all day at Tendaba with a morning boat ride along the river’s creeks and an afternoon jeep safari in the nearby acacia scrub and woodland of Kiang West National Park. In addition I birded around the camp in my free time and skipped lunch. The creeks produced 3 Goliath and 2 White-backed Night Herons, African Hawk Eagle, 2 White-throated Bee-eaters and far less impressive, but new, 8 Mouse-brown Sunbirds. The acacia was more productive and I ended the day with 13 new birds, the best being Grasshopper Buzzard, Stone Partridge, 5 Double-spurred Francolins, 2 Black-billed Wood Doves, 3 White-fronted Black Chats, male Exclamatory Paradise Whydah and 2 Brown-rumped Buntings. We saw a small barbet I couldn’t readily place which Sering identified it as Gambia’s first Hairy-crested Barbet. It made sense. I’d seen them in Kenya some years previously. Oher nice birds seen included Grey Kestrel, flight views of 2 Abyssinian Ground Hornbills and male Painted Snipe and African Golden Oriole. We were out until the light started to fade. I was in the first of two 4WDs and we drove back slightly ahead of the other but didn’t realize it had stopped until we were back at camp. They returned 10 minutes later, by which time it was completely dark, having seen Four-banded Sandgrouse by the track, probably the bird I most wanted to see in Gambia after Egyptian Plover. Paul had been in the second vehicle and told me the area was about a mile or two from the lodge but we were leaving promptly at 09:00 the following morning. I packed my bag ready for departure and told Paul I’d skip breakfast and be at the bus just before it left.
Tendaba boat trip
Wednesday 31 October. I was up and heading for the sandgrouse area just before dawn. It seemed like a long shot and so it proved. It took about 45 minutes of fairly brisk walking to get there and I wandered around for half an hour before heading back, arriving at 08:55 just in time to collect my bag. I wasn’t even last onto the bus. No sandgrouse but 5 Double-spurred Francolin, 5 Black Crowned Cranes and a Fine-spotted Woodpecker were some compensation. We stopped on the banks of the River Gambia at Soma where we saw our first Egyptian Plover. It was superb, even better than I was expecting, and I could have watched it for hours but was called back onto the bus after little more than 10 minutes. We had a way to go and would certainly see more although I suspected not being late for lunch was the main consideration. We continued on to Bird Safari Camp, by the river at Janjangbureh. We birded around the camp seeing 3 Stone Partridges, 2 Violet Turacos, 8 Bruce’s Green Pigeons, Moho, Grey-headed Bush Shrike and 2 Pied-winged Swallows. Just before dusk I had brilliant views of a male and two female Four-banded Sandgrouse near the camp. Superb and most welcome after the morning’s failure. They even knocked Egyptian Plover off top spot, if only temporarily. An intermittently calling African Scops Owl refused to show after dark.

Thursday 01 November. The African Scops Owl was calling before dawn but had stopped before I was ready to go out and look for it. Around Bird Safari Camp I saw 2 pairs of Four-banded Sandgrouse and Yellow-throated Leaflove. After breakfast we continued on towards Basse stopping at Bansang Quarry and its breeding Red-throated Bee-eaters. We saw over 100! Also there were 2 Mottled Spinetails, Red-winged Ptylia, 6 Yellow-fronted Canaries and 3 Cinnamon-breasted Buntings. We arrived at Basse in heavy rain and was disappointed to find just one Egyptian Plover although it did give superb views on the town jetty. Other enjoyable sightings during the day were 3 Violet Turacos, 2 Levaillant’s Cuckoos, 12 Abyssinian Rollers and 2 male Exclamatory Paradise Whydahs.
Bee-eater nest holes at Bansang Quarry
instamatic-scoping at Red-throated Bee-eaters at Bansang Quarry
a much smarter bird than these images suggest

our accommodation at Basse, torrential rain turning the entrance path into a river
people and livestock ferry across the Gambia River at Basse
the main jetty Basse
good for washing and Egyptian Plover

Friday 02 November. We birded around Basse in the morning before driving back to Janjanbureh Bird Safari Camp. Seven brilliant Egyptian Plovers were seen on the riverbank in and around Basse. In the paddyfields nearby we saw 2 Four-banded Sandgrouse, 2 Giant Kingfishers and 15 Red-throated, 20 European and 12 Northern Carmine Bee-eaters and 15 Quailfinch. Two Black Coucals near the Janjanbureh ferry were new for me as were 2 Western Banded Snake Eagles at Bird Camp. Other good birds seen were 3 Stone Partridges, 3 Painted Snipe, 6 Senegal Thick-knees, 7 Black-headed Plovers, another 9 Four-banded Sandgrouse (groups of 2, 2 & 5) and 20 Abyssinian Rollers. After our evening meal and armed with torch and tapes I tracked down and had good views of 2 African Scops Owls, a couple of the others tagging along.
Egyptian Plover at Basse

while the above images taken through the telescope came out quite well, this and the next were at a strange angle, hence not being rectangular

Saturday 03 November. An African Scops Owl was calling before dawn but having had good views the previous evening I was happy to ignore it. A quick look around Bird Camp before breakfast produced 4 Stone Partridges, excellent views of a pair Four-banded Sandgrouse and a Moho. The sandgrouse were in the area I had first seen them on our earlier visit, my concern over missing them at Tendaba was becoming a distant memory as I had now seen them four days running. After breakfast we saw the 2 Western Banded Snake Eagles before boarding a smallish boat and travelling about 15km to Sapo by river. It was disappointing with nothing of particular interest seen. Our bus was waiting for us and we drove a short distance to Jahally marsh and rice fields where 2 White-headed Vultures and a very impressive juvenile Martial Eagle were the highlights. It as then a long drive back to Banjul and the Senegambia Beach Hotel where we arrived after dark. The door of Paul and my room wouldn’t lock and with all our gear there we didn’t want to leave it unlocked. I stayed in while Paul went to dinner and by the someone came and fixed it I was too tired to bother about food. My first, and as it turned out only, day without a new bird but at least we’d seen a few nice things on what was basically a travel day. I’d happily have skipped the boat trip though.
sandgrouse spot at Bird Safari Camp

weaver nests from the Gambia River trip were about as good as it got
Jahally Marsh or somewhere similar
returning to Banjul

local bus, I'm glad it wasn't ours
Sunday 04 November. My usual pre-breakfast wander wasn’t very productive despite wandering a bit further afield than just the Senegambia grounds. With Sering still guiding us we drove into Banjul where we took a ferry across the mouth of the Gambia River to Barra on the northern side. Seawatching from the ferry produced 2 Grey Phalaropes and a juvenile Pomarine and 3 Arctic Skuas. On the other side we travelled a short distance inland to Berending where we saw 2 Black Wood Hoopoes, a new bird for me that I’d previously missed up river. Two Four-banded Sandgrouse flew over while we also saw Sacred Ibis, 2 Tawny Eagles, Great Spotted and 5 Diederic Cuckoos, Striped Kingfisher, Plain-backed Pipit, 6 Northern Anteater Chats and 4 Pin-tailed Whydahs, all of which were new for the trip. Since we headed up river I’d been asking Sering about Northern White-faced Owl and had been shocked to learn that when with Solomon we had twice driven past a roosting pair in Lamin without stopping to look. Sering offered to take us to look for them if an opportunity arose when we were back on the coast and returning from Barra with an hour of daylight provided it. Sering arranged for three of us to hire a taxi and jumped in with us. It was 12km to Lamin which took about half an hour. We stopped on the main street and immediately two small boys came up and asked if we’d come to look at the owls! The 2 Northern White-faced Owls were roosting in a tree on the main street and couldn’t have been easier to see. A brilliant end to the day thanks to Sering.
on the quay at Banjul
boarding the ferry to Barra
speedboat heading for Banjul

the open sea and a smaller, crowded ferry
although our ferry was a bit of a squash too
Monday 05 November. Our final full day. After a look around the hotel (grounds, offshore and nearby rice fields) and breakfast we headed for Tanji and Brufut Woods. I was hoping to see Senegal Batis and we, or rather Sering, heard one but it was distant and we couldn’t track it down. Definitely something we should have seen if we’d been on site before it became too hot. The savanna woodland was nice but birding was slow despite clocking up 100 species by the end of the day. I saw 2 new birds when we returned to Tanji after dinner, 4 Long-tailed and a female Standard-winged Nightjars. Other highlights during the day were 2 Stone Partridges, 4 Painted Snipe, 7 Senegal Thick-knees, another Pomarine Skua, 2 Yellow-legged Gulls, Mottled Spinetail, 4 Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, African Pied Hornbill, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, 4 Black-crowned Tchagras and 6 Yellow-crowned Gonoleks.

Tuesday 06 November. After a look around the hotel and breakfast we birded near Yundum before catching our afternoon flight home. Two new birds on our last day took my total for the trip to 65 (and 275 species seen) although both were Cisticolas, Siffling and 3 Rufous. Other nice birds were Black-shouldered Kite, 3 Black-headed Plovers, Pygmy Kingfisher, 4 Bearded Barbets, a male Fine-spotted and 2 Brown-backed Woodpeckers and a Moho. To get me in the mood to return home we also saw single Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and House Sparrow. I’d seen most of the birds I’d hoped to, in no small part due to the expert guiding of Sering, but was disappointed by how the tour fitted around meal times rather than the reverse. It certainly cost us some birds although most of the participants probably weren’t overly concerned by this. It was my first experience of a bird tour and had been moderately successful, although it was to be 15 years before I’d go on another one.

[blogged December 2019]

Sunday, 22 April 2001

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 2001: 13-22 April

This is part two of Nick Preston and my Puerto Rico and the Dominion Republic trip. It is based on very scant notebook entries and unreliable memories and illustrated with a few digitised instamatic-type prints none of which are of birds …

We arrived in Santo Domingo in the afternoon of 13 April, paid a $10 visa fee and picked up our hire car, the smallest available with possibly the lowest clearance! We were heading for Pedernales on the southern border with Haiti but it was almost 350km and time was against us so we didn’t expect to make it in one go. We saw 20 Cattle Egrets and 2 American Kestrels in the fading light and a couple of hours into the journey were feeling pretty wrecked. After about 140km we stopped in Azua, the first sizable town we’d driven through since Santo Domingo, and found a hotel. It didn’t look great from the outside despite being called Hotel Americana Azua. It was even worse inside, the room light fusing when switched on, but we’d not seen any alternatives and were desperate to lie down and crash out so we took it, a whole $5 worth. It is probably the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and that is saying something, but it served its purpose.

We left early on 14 April, it was not the sort of hotel we wanted to linger in, and drove the 200km to Pedernales. We saw 7 Palmchats near Barahona, Dominican Republic’s endemic family although not overly inspiring to look at, 2 Mourning Doves but little else of interest on the way. We booked into the Hotel Carib Sun in Pedernales ($30 for 2 nights) and drove back east for 12km to find the start of the Aceitilla Road up into the Parque Nacional Sierra de Baoruco. The road soon deteriorated and was very bad in places but our car managed it and we spent the rest of the day birding in the park. New birds came thick and fast as we made decent inroads on the endemics and specialities seeing 2 Hispaniolan Parakeets, 20 Hispaniolan Parrots, 10 Antillean Palm Swifts, 3 Hispaniolan Emeralds, 8 superb Broad-billed Todies, 6 Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, Hispaniolan Pewee, 5 Stolid Flycatchers, 3 not very Golden Swallows, 2 Greater Antillean Bullfinches, 10 Black-crowned Palm Tanagers and 4 Antillean Siskins. In addition 2 Hispaniolan Spindalis and 25 White-winged Crossbills had not been split at the time. We also heard Hispaniolan Palm Crow and saw an unidentified Quail Dove (probably Ruddy) in flight, Antillean Nighthawk, 10 more Palmchats, 2 Black & White, male Pine, Cape May and 2 Palm Warblers and an American Redstart.

view from the lower section of the Acetilla Road
pine forest on the Acetilla Road, good for White-winged Crossbills
On 15 April we were on the Aceitilla Road before dawn seeing 5 more Antillean Nighthawks and what might have been a Greater Antillean Nightjar. We birded along the road in Parque Nacional Sierra de Baoruco until early afternoon seeing our first Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo, 4 tiny Vervain Hummingbirds, 6 Green-tailed Ground Warblers, an excellent Flat-billed Vireo and 7 Hispaniolan Palm Crows. Other good birds included 10 Scaly-naped, 2 White-crowned and 3 Plain Pigeons, 40 Hispaniolan Parakeets, 15 Hispaniolan Parrots, Burrowing Owl, 2 Antillean Mangos, 5 Hispaniolan Emeralds, 12 Broad-billed Todies, 2 Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, 3 Hispaniolan Pewees, 2 Stolid Flycatchers, 6 Caribbean Martins, 2 Golden and 2 Cave Swallows, 8 Red-legged Thrushes, 4 Yellow-faced Grassquits, 10 Greater Antillean Bullfinches, an Indigo Bunting, 8 Black-crowned Palm Tanagers, Hispaniolan Spindalis, 4 Antillean Siskins and 40 White-winged Crossbills. We finished at Cabo Rojo (Dominican Republic has one too) and some roadside pools which held 5 species of heron, 20 White Ibis, 5 Roseate Spoonbills and 12 species of wader including Solitary, Pectoral and 22 Stilt Sandpipers. During the day we’d seen 10 species of North American Warbler – 2 Black & White, 2 Yellow, 3 Black-throated Blue, Pine, Prarie, 6 Cape May, 5 Palm, 3 American Redstarts, 2 Ovenbirds and 4 Yellowthroats. It had been a very enjoyable day.

On 16 April we left Pedernales to drive the 180km to Duverge, on the northern (opposite) side of the Sierra de Baoruco. We were expecting it to take about 4 hours but leaving a small village the car appeared to ground on a speed bump and came to a sudden stop. Thinking it might be a puncture I got out to find the tyre intact but the front right wheel at a 90 degree angle. It had come detached from the axle. With no one about in the village to ask for help we managed to force the wheel back into alignment and amazingly it was fine and we continued with only an hour’s delay. Two Mangrove Cuckoos and 5 Palmchats were the only notable birds on the journey. At Duverge a drivable track led up into Sierra de Baoruco that would allow us to access its higher section on the Haiti border where several key species occurred. Our ultimate destination Zapotan was was only about 20km from Pedernales on a dreadful track that even a 4WD would have been hard pressed to cope with. We’d taken one look at the start of it and hoped the Zapotan option was better. The road started reasonably well but quickly deteriorated and at times was like driving up a dried up river bed. Having low clearance clearly wasn’t helping but we were determined to make it and save ourselves a long arduous walk. We made it to the army camp at El Aguacate, on the border with Haiti and overlooking it, and continued on to Duverge, the track by now actually improved. The roadside clearing we’d intended staying in had become a potato staging post and although the workers there were friendly it seemed more like a refuge camp and we didn’t fancy camping there. We continued birding up the road and as dark was approaching returned to El Aguacate and received permission from the army to put our tents up by the entrance to their ‘fort’. New for us were 3 excellent Hispaniolan Trogons, 7 equally good Narrow-billed Todies, 3 not so impressive Greater Antillean Elaenias, 4 superb Rufous-throated Solitares (with lots more heard) and 2 White-winged Warblers while we heard Greater Antillean Nightjar after dark and a fairly distant La Selle Thrush. We also saw 2 Hispaniolan Parrots, 3 Hispaniolan Emeralds, 4 Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, 2 Hispaniolan Pewees and a Hispaniolan Spindalis, Golden Swallow, 4 Greater Antillean Bullfinches and 4 Green-tailed Ground Warblers. North American warblers were not well represented at this altitude with just a Black & White and 3 Black-throated Blues. It wasn’t too cold and we slept well.

We were up before dawn on 17 April, walking up the road trying to see Greater Antillean Nightjar but frustratingly only heard 3. We packed up our tent, drove up to the potato workers camp and spent the day walking for several kms beyond Zapotan before returning to the National Park sign above Duverge, the track being no better when going down than it had been coming up. The contrast between the forested national park in the Dominican Republic and the devastation of Haiti couldn’t have been more dramatic. Highlights were 2 Grey-headed Quail-Doves, one very well on the track and a good flight view, Bay-breasted Cuckoo, La Selle Thrush and the front half of a Chat Tanager (Nick saw it all). Also 10 Hispaniolan Parakeets, 20 Hispaniolan Parrots, Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo, 2 Hispaniolan Emeralds, 14 Hispaniolan Trogons (including a flock of 9!), 9 Broad-billed Todies (below El Aguacate), 8 Narrow-billed Todies (above El Aguacate), 13 Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, 7 Hispaniolan Pewee, 2 Golden Swallows, Rufous-throated Solitaire, 3 Black-crowned Palm Tanagers, 9 Green-tailed and 6 White-winged Warblers and a Flat-billed Vireo. Seven species of North American warbler included 6 Black & White, our only Chestnut-sided, 12 Black-throated Blue Warblers and 9 Ovenbirds. Sadly our success with night birds didn’t improve with us hearing but not seeing 3 Least Poorwills above Puerto Escondido in areas near where we camped.
Sierra de Baoruco near El Aguacate 
looking at Haiti near Zapotan 
Sierra de Baoruco above Puerto Escondido
Early on 18 April we tried again for Least Poorwill but were unsuccessfully, hearing two. We birded dry scrub along the lower part of the road down to Duverge seeing Mangrove and 3 Hispaniolan Cuckoos, 12 Broad-billed Todies, 8 Stolid Flycatchers, 15 Palmchats, 7 Red-legged Thrushes, 8 Black-crowned Palm Tanagers, Flat-billed Vireo, 4 Green-tailed Ground Warblers and 7 species of North American warbler including male Blue-winged, Prarie, male Magnolia and 7 Ovenbirds. We continued on to Lago Enriquillo and then back to Barahona seeing 10 American Flamingoes, 6 Plain Pigeons, Antillean Mango, 2 Palmchats and 2 Hispaniolan Palm and 3 White-necked Crows, the latter our only new bird. At Barahona we stayed in the Hotel Cacique ($35 for two nights). From 19:00-21:15 we drove the Santa Elena road to the south hoping for Ashy-faced Owl and Northern Potoo but with no luck. The area looked decidedly dubious and not the sort of place we wanted to be. What appeared to be crime scene taping off part of a horribly smelly roadside rubbish tip did nothing to change that view and we left before our imagination got too carried away.

We were back on the Santa Elena Road from 04:30-07:00 on 19 April feeling any self respecting mugger would still be asleep at that time. Owls and potoos were again absent or keeping a very low profile which was disappointing. We decided we needed help with the night birds and Nick contacted Julio, a local bird guide we had a number for. He agreed for $35 each to take us out that evening, expensive but we hoped it would prove worthwhile. In the meantime we drove to Laguna del Rincon where we saw some common wetland birds, 2 Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoos, 2 Broad-billed Todies, 7 Hispaniolan Woodpeckers and 2 Palmchats. After dark we picked up Julio and drove to the far end of Lago Enriquillo. Here Julio played Ashy-faced Owl tapes but elicited no response. We suggested he was playing them far too quietly as we could barely hear them from 5m away but he was wasn’t persuaded to raise the volume by very much. After an hour or two of hearing nothing in an area by the lake that looked no different from any other, not that we could see much in the dark, he announced that the owls must have moved elsewhere. It was all quiet on the potoo front too and we rather wished we’d agreed payment by results with Juliuo. Desperate to find something we headed back to Duverge and up the dreadful track/river bed beyond Puerto Escondido. We wouldn’t be getting much sleep this night.

From 01:00-03:30 on 20 April we tried for Least Poorwill hearing six before eventually having excellent views of the seventh. Hoping our luck might have changed we drove further up the worst part of the track looking for Greater Antillean Nightjar but only heard one before giving up. We did see 4 Burrowing Owls but only one was a decent view and hardly made up for the other night birds missed. We returned to Barahona completely wrecked and had a lie in before check-out time when we drove back to Santo Domingo. Part way back there was a bang from under the bonnet and the car stopped. Getting out we discovered an increasing pool of oil under the car. We seemed to have blown off the oil filter, probably as a result of the previous nights escapade on the river bed track above Puerto Escondido. We were a little way past a village but soon attracted a small crowd. Someone on a motorbike knew a mechanic and went off to fetch them. Over the next two hours there was a lot of standing around pointing but little positive action. Nick was flying home the next day and we needed to get back to Santo Domingo. I impressed upon our mechanic that if he couldn’t fix the car soon we’d leave it and flag down the next bus. This prospect seemed to focus his mind as he could presumably see a decent repair bill slipping away. He seemed to put on a new oil filter, added a litre of so of oil and told us it was all fixed. We paid him what seemed a reasonable amount in the circumstances and were on our way, arriving in Santo Domingo before dark with no further issues. Eight American Kestrels and 6 Palmchats were the most notable species seen during the journey. As I was staying two nights and Nick one we took single rooms at the Hotel Indepencia, my two nights costing $25.

We were up early on 21 April and in Santo Domingo Botanical Gardens from 06:30-08:30. Two West Indian Whistling Duck were a hoped for new bird, not always seen at this location. We also saw 2 Limpkin, 2 Solitary Sandpipers, 7 Hispaniolan Parakeets, Mangrove and Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoos, Antillean Mango, Vervain Hummingbird, Broad-billed Tody, 12 Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, 15 Cave Swallows, 30 Palmchats and a Black-crowned Palm Tanager. I drove Nick to the airport in good time for his flight, conscious all the way that the car may let us down again. It didn’t. I returned to Santo Domingo, parked the car outside the hotel and spent the afternoon wandering around the Old Town being a tourist which was quite nice, helped by 6 Magnificent Frigatebirds cruising over.
Old Santo Domingo
my quick tour of a few of the tourist sites

On 22 April I returned to Santo Domingo Botanical Gardens at 06:20. My flight was a bit later than Nick’s had been so I stayed to 09:30. I couldn’t find the whistling ducks but saw Limpkin, the 2 Solitary Sandpipers, 20 Common Ground Doves, 5 Hispaniolan Parakeets, 2 Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoos, 15 Antillean Palm Swifts, 3 Antillean Mangos, an impressive 11 Vervain Hummingbirds, 4 Broad-billed Todies, 40(!) Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, 75 Palmchats, 20 Northern Mockingbirds, 3 Red-legged Thrushes, 2 Black-whiskered Vireos and 2 Greater Antillean Grackles. I returned to the hotel and checked out, making the mistake of putting my rucksack across the rear seat rather than in the boot. Driving along the dual carriageway towards the airport a scooter overtook me and its passenger signalled for me to pull over. Passenger and driver were wearing uniforms so I thought I’d better comply. The passenger promptly got into the car next to me, told me I’d been driving erratically and to turn off at the next junction. I continued driving but certainly wasn’t turning off if I could help it. The passenger became more insistent that I turn off at the next junction but I told him if there was a problem we could sort it out with the tourist police at the airport and continued past the junction, his mate was following on the scooter. I then stopped on the hard shoulder, leaned across and opened his door telling him to get out of the car. He wouldn’t so I kept going, speeding up and repeating ‘aeropuerto tourist police’ for what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably only half of that before he relented and told me to stop. I did, he got out and climbed onto the back of the following scooter. Very relieved I continued to the airport, handed in the car and caught my flight home. 

The Dominican Republic left a slight sour taste following what I can only think was an attempted mugging. A couple of car issues (probably due to us hiring a cheaper car than was really needed) turned out to be only minor irritants but failing to see most night birds and, surprisingly, Antillean Piculet was more concerning. Despite that I’d seen 67 new species on the trip including 30 of the 108 species seen in Dominican Republic. I'd seen 156 species altogether. Not bad for a bit under £1200 all in and thanks again to Nick, we make a good team.

[blogged November 2019]

Friday, 13 April 2001

PUERTO RICO 2001: 06-13 April

Nick Preston and I decided to visit Puerto Rico and the Dominion Republic over Easter 2001. Nick was restricted to School holidays when flights were at their most expensive so I found flights going out two days earlier and back a day later that saved as much as I was likely to spend in that time. This blog covers the Puerto Rico part of the trip and is based on very scant notebook entries and unreliable memories. It is illustrated with a few digitised instamatic prints which includes just one bird. If that is not enough to put you off please read on ...

I left Heathrow on 5 April 2001, changed planes in Madrid and arrived in San Juan that afternoon. I picked up a car and drove east along the coast to Luquillo where I camped on the beach. There was a charge of $10 per night but nobody obvious to pay it to although in fairness I was too tired to try too hard. Great Antillean Grackles and Zenada Doves were common and my first new birds and I also saw Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, a single Royal Tern, 2 each of Common Ground and White-winged Doves and 12 Grey Kingbirds.

On 6 April I was up early, still no one about to pay, and drove to El Yunque Caribbean National Forest. There I birded the El Yunque trail, Mount Britton Link and Mount Britton Road. It took me a while to find my first Puerto Rican Tody (my first tody of any sort and one of my main targets for the trip) but I eventually found seven. They did not disappoint. Also new were 10 Scaly-naped Pigeons, Green Mango, female Puerto Rican Emerald, male Puerto Rican Woodpecker, 3 Pearly-eyed Thrashers, 5 Red-legged Thrushes, Black-whiskered Vireo, 3 Puerto Rican Spindalis and 3 Puerto Rican Tanagers. I couldn’t see anywhere obvious to camp and headed back to the coast and Playa Seven Seas, birding there until dusk and adding another six new birds: 2 White-crowned Pigeons, 2 Mangrove Cuckoos, male Green-throated Carib, male Antillean Crested Hummingbird, female Antillean Mango and Caribbean Elania. At Playa Seven Seas I also saw 8 Magnificent Frigatebirds, Tricoloured and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, 7 Semipalmated Plovers, 2 Spotted Sandpipers, Belted Kingfisher, 2 American Kestrels, 5 Bananaquits and a Parula Warbler. I paid $20 for two nights camping and put up my tent. It had been a brilliant first day, just a shame Nick hadn’t been with me to share it.
El Yunque Caribbean National Forest

El Yunque forest trail

On 7 April I birded around Playa Seven Seas until 07:00 then left to drive to San Jose airport to collect Nick. A Green Heron, Smooth-billed Ani and 2 Cape May Warblers were new for the trip. Nick’s flight was on time and we drove back to El Yunque where we spent the rest of the day. We birded the road, Mount Britton trail, tower and spur, El Yunque trail and road and 1.5km of Crosswinds. We saw all the birds I’d seen yesterday with 14 Scaly-naped Pigeons, Green Mango, 4 Puerto Rican Emeralds, 10 Puerto Rican Todies, male Puerto Rican Woodpecker, 5 Pearly-eyed Thrashers, 3 Red-legged Thrushes, 2 Black-whiskered Vireos, 4 Puerto Rican Spindalis and 6 Puerto Rican Tanagers. We also saw a Puerto Rican Bullfinch which was new for me, Broad-winged and Red-tailed Hawks, single Black & White, Parula and Cape May Warblers and a Puerto Rican Parrot although the latter was in an aviary as part of a recovery programme as there were less than 20 in the wild. We drove to Playa Seven Seas where Nick put up his tent as it was getting dark.
Playa Seven Seas
We were up as it was getting light on 8 April and birded around Playa Seven Seas before packing up our tents. Bahama Pintail and Osprey were new for me for the trip while Nick caught up with most of the birds I’d seen there two days previously. Best of those were Mangrove Cuckoo, Green-throated Carib, 5 Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, female Antillean Mango and Puerto Rican Woodpecker. We also saw six species of American warbler - 5 Northern Waterthrushes, 2 superb Ovenbirds, 3 Cape May, a Yellow and 3 Parula Warblers and an American Redstart - four of which were new for the trip. We drove around the coast to the lagoons at Humacao Nature Reserve. This added 83 Pied-billed Grebes(!), 30 Ruddy Duck, single Snowy Egret and Little Blue Heron, 30 Moorhen, 25 Caribbean Coot, Black-necked Stilt and Black-cowled Oriole. It was then a long drive along the south coast to Guanica where we parked just off the 333 and Nick put up his tent. I was too tired to do the same and slept in the car.

On 9 April we were up before dawn and birded along route 333 as it was getting light seeing 3 Puerto Rican Nightjars although none gave good views. We continued into the Guanica Biosphere Reserve where other new birds were 4 Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoos, 2 Puerto Rican Flycatchers, 2 Antillean Euphonias, 11 Adelaide’s Warblers and 3 Puerto Rican Vireos. We also saw male Antillean Mango, 33 (!!) Puerto Rican Todies and 9 Puerto Rican Bullfinches while 6 Turkey Vulture, American Oystercatcher and 2 Indian Silverbills (!) were new for the trip. We drove route 324 to La Parguera seeing 5 Clapper Rails and c25 Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds (both new), Wilson’s and 10 Grey Plovers, 10 Least Sandpipers, 5 Lesser Yellowlegs, 6 Collared Doves and a Northern Waterthrush on and around the saltponds on the way. We stayed in Villa Andujar at $40 for two.

Guanica Biosphere Reserve
Puerto Rican Tody at Guanica
the only species I photographed on the trip so nice it was my favourite bird in Puerto Rico and even nicer that they were common (I saw 78)

We drove to the end of route 333 for dawn on 10 April seeing Antillean Nighthawk well and a much better view of Puerto Rican Nightjar than we’d managed the previous morning. We returned to La Parguera on route 324 seeing a Willet but otherwise similar species to previously on the pools. We quickly drove inland to Marico Forest Reserve where we spent the rest of the day. Here Elfin Woods Warbler was our main target and we saw a male at km 13.1 and 2 females on the track from the Forest Station. Big celebrations. The forest here was excellent and we saw 10 Scaly-naped Pigeons, 2 Green Mangos, 4 Puerto Rican Emeralds, 12 Puerto Rican Todies, 3 Puerto Rican Woodpeckers, 10 Grey and a Loggerhead Kingbird (new for us), Yellow-faced and 5 Black-faced Grassquits, 3 Puerto Rican Bullfinches, 15 Puerto Rican Tanagers, 6 Puerto Rican Spindalis, Black & White, Parula and 2 Cape May Warblers, 2 American Redstarts, 9 Puerto Rican and 3 Black-whiskered Vireos, 4 Black-cowled Orioles and 4 Shiny Cowbirds. Adrian, one of the rangers, kindly let us stay in the Forest Station dormitory and as it was getting dark Puerto Rican Screech Owls started calling. We had mega views of a pair near the Forest Station and then another further down the track while two others were heard. A brilliant end to our most enjoyable day so far.

We were out along the Marico Forest Station trail soon after dawn on 11 April. Two Puerto Rican Pewees were new for us and a pair of Elfin Woods Warblers very nice to see again. Otherwise it was fairly quiet with Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo, 4 Puerto Rican Todies and a Loggerhead Kingbird best. We drove back to the coast and Cabo Rojo in the extreme SW corner of Puerto Rico where we saw 2 Caribbean Martins, another new bird. We saw several species of waders en route including a Snowy and 3 Wilson’s Plovers and 6 Least and 20 Semipalmated Sandpipers with Puerto Rican Tody and Troupial nearby. We drove north up the west coast to join the main highway which we followed north then east along the north coast to Parador Guajataca, a journey of about 100km. Here the main attraction was White-tailed Tropicbird and we looked down on 6, a Brown Pelican and 10 Magnificent Frigatebirds. Our final destination was Guajataca Forest Reserve, about 15km inland. Here we saw Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo, 4 Puerto Rican Todies, 4 Red-legged Thrushes, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Parula Warbler and Puerto Rican Bullfinch. With nowhere obvious to camp we spent the night sleeping out on the observation platform, to the sound of Puerto Rican Screech Owls. We’d seen them so well the previous evening we left them too it.
track at Marico Forest Station
Lagoons at Cabo Rojo
Nick at Cabo Rojo
me at Cabo Rojo
The main bird we were hoping to see at Guatajaca was Key West Quail-Dove. Having failed the previous evening early morning on 12 April seemed to offer our best chance and so it proved with two seen well along the trails. We also recorded 10 species with names starting Puerto Rican, being Lizard Cuckoo, Screech Owl, Emerald, Tody, Pewee, Flycatcher, Bullfinch, Spindalis and Vireo although the first two were only heard. A female Scarlet Tanager was, according to our field guide, very rare on Puerto Rico while a male Black-throated Blue Warbler was a welcome addition to the trip list. We returned to
the coast at Parador Guajataca to binge further on White-tailed Tropicbirds seeing 9 and 10 Caribbean Martins. Nearby wetlands produced 2 American Coot, a Belted Kingfisher and our first 2 Cave Swallows (we later saw another 10). We returned to San Juan via Comerio where we found 5 Plain Pigeons. We’d seen pretty much all we could have expected on Puerto Rico, the Parrot was really a non-starter, so we decided to spend the afternoon in San Juan looking for Java Sparrows. Our Lonely Planet Guide even included a (mis-labelled) photo of four sat on a rock so we assumed it would be a formality. It wasn’t with three hours walking around the Old Town and castle walls only producing 2 Monk Parakeets, 3 House Sparrows and a Black-faced Grassquit. We continued on to Playa Seven Seas for out last night in Puerto Rico arriving late and putting up our tents in the dark.
Old San Juan

part of plate from Lonely Planet Puerto Rico (1999 first edition)

On 13 April we took down the tents and spent an hour or so birding at Playa Seven Seas seeing almost 40 species. None were new for the trip but they did include 2 White-crowned Pigeons, 2 Mangrove Cuckoos, male Green-throated Carib, male Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, 2 Puerto Rican Woodpeckers, Cave Swallow, male Cape May Warbler and 3 Northern Waterthrushes. There was no one about to pay when we left but we were not too bothered as on my earlier visit I was told that they had a two night minimum policy. We drove back to San Juan Airport, handed back the car (in which I unfortunately left my soft binocular case under the drivers seat) and boarded our flight to Santo Domingo. Puerto Rico had been very successful, I'd seen 98 species of which 37 were new. It was an easy place to travel around and go birding, we were expecting the Dominion Republic would be more taxing ...

[blogged November 2019]