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]

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