Is it possible to see a good number of Dominican and Caribbean endemics independently without the services of a bird guide? This was the challenge ahead of us on this trip, and unfortunately we did miss quite a few special birds, partly threw not knowing the sights as well as someone with local knowledge but also I feel threw the main birding area being all but inaccessible at the moment.
We flew into the tourist hotspot of Puerto Plata on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic and after a short break at a nearby beach resort headed South West to Barahona and the Sierra de Bahoruco, where most of the sort-after endemics can be found. After a few days we headed back North for a little R&R before heading home.
Costs and logistics:
Flights - We had booked a direct return flight with Thompson Airlines flying out of Manchester Airport. The cost of the flight was £498.98 per person and there were no significant problems or delays.
Accommodation – We used 2 hotels in Barahona. First there was hotel Margarita on the Malecon on the southern edge of town, this one should definitely be avoided because although it was cheap it was also noisy and very seedy, we would not have stayed here but it was late and we were tired and could not be bothered to look for anywhere else. The second was hotel Caribe which I would say is one of the better choices, the price for a double room was 1300 Pesos and this included a reasonable breakfast if you were not out birding, this hotel could also be noisy at the Weekends when everyone seems to party on the Malecon at night.
To visit the Sierra de Bahoruco we stayed at the Villa Barrancoli campsite in the small village of Puerto Escondido, this is run by and booked threw Kate Tody of Tody Tours and certainly cuts down the travelling time to get to the birding spots compared to having to come from Barahona. The facilities at the campsite include toilets, cold showers and a warm meal in the evening if you arrange it in advance, also there are now 2 screen shelters each with 2 small beds including bedding if requested.
I booked my car hire with National and it was ready and waiting for me when we landed at Puerto Plata, we booked a 4WD Suzuki Grand Vitara 2.5 and this was fine for getting around most of the island but unfortunately did not manage the road up the Sierra de Bahoruco, but more about that later on. There was an option of hiring a GPS and in hindsight that may have been a good idea.
We used a National Geographic map of the Dominican Republic from the adventuremap series and along with a lonely planet guide we managed to get around OK only getting lost a couple of times.
Books & Field Guides:
I used the now outdated Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (no joke) and to be honest if I did not already own it due to previous trips to the region I would have bought something better.
I think we were quite lucky with the weather it only rained on two days and never for the whole day – just isolated showers, the rest of the time it was warm and sunny but not usually too hot.
There were plenty of mosquitoes around the Villa Barrancoli campsite and on the Rabo de Gato trail make sure that you take good repellent and cover yourself up, if you are staying at the campsite then take your own mossy net or you will be bitten a lot, we also encountered plenty of mosquitoes in a number of other locations especially around large areas of standing water.
Most of the roads are poorly maintained and very poorly signed so driving is not easy even with a 4x4 and some experience driving in a foreign country. The road leading up the Sierra de Bahoruco mountain range was particularly bad and we got stuck twice trying to get up it, the second time quite seriously and it took us about an hour to dig the car out and get back to a part of the road which was firmer and on which we could abandon the car for the day and continue on foot. The next day we again parked lower down and walked as far as we could up the mountain and we saw two of the large trucks that use the road get stuck! We also had two punctures during our stay, which is more than I would expect on this kind of trip. Luckily both were in areas where there were plenty of Gomeros who were able to either fix the punctured tyre or on one occasion get us a new tyre.
Most people were friendly and would help you with flat tires etc… but for a small fee naturally, strangely even though they may have been poorer the people using the Sierra de Bahoruco road seemed friendlier than most and one guy even tried to turn down the money we were offering him after he had spent the best part of an hour helping us to dig out our car.
Birding and Endemics
The area around Barahona and the Sierra de Bahoruco hold most the Hispaniolan endemics and West Indian Specialties that birders aim for so unless you want to try for Ridgway’s Hawk then this is the area where you will be doing most of your birding. Unfortunately as we could not get to the high altitude areas of the Sierra de Bahoruco we missed the species for which this area is known for (mainly La Selle Thrush, Western Chat Tanager and White-winged Warbler) and also if we had hired a guide for a few days we would probably have added a few more such as Flat-billed Vireo, Antillean Piculet and maybe even Bay-breasted Cuckoo but we could not justify the cost of hiring the guides just for ourselves.
Here are the ones we did get and where.
Grey-headed Quail Dove – This was probably the highlight of the trip, two were seen on the evening of the 22/11 along the Rabo de Gato trail. Both birds were seen near to the stagnant pools that border the trail only about one kilometre from the campsite and both were as dusk was beginning to gather but if anything the low light levels made their white heads stand out even more.
Scaly-naped Pigeon – 6 were seen on the 22/11 and 2 on the 23/11 all were flushed from trees and bushes bordering the El Aguacate road but a few landed again near enough for reasonable views.
Plain Pigeon – Small numbers were seen around the Villa Barrancoli campsite and the roads in the immediate vicinity of Puerto Escondido on the 21, 22 & 23/11.
Hispaniolan Parrot – 3 were seen flying over the Sierra de Bahoruco road on the 23/11, they were at a much higher elevation than I was but luckily they were noisy and the parrot shape is easy to identify even at distance.
Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo – Commonly recorded around the Sierra de Bahoruco both on the El Aguacate road and also the Rabo de Gato trail, birds were also seen from the car whilst travelling across Dominica and 2 more were seen on the Madre Vieja road near to Cabarete on the North Coast.
Hispaniolan Emerald – Only 2 birds were seen all trip, 1 of which was singing from an exposed perch on both visits to the Rabo de Gato trail and another was seen at mid altitude on the El Aguacate road. More would probably have been seen had I been able to reach the higher altitude areas where they are supposed to be commoner.
Antillean Mango - This was the commonest hummingbird on the trip with individuals seen in most areas and on most days.
Hispaniolan Trogon – I only saw this species at mid altitude on the El Aguacate road, 1 was seen on the 22/11 and 2 on the 23/11.
Broad-billed Tody – Singles of this species were recorded on both visits to the Rabo de Gato trail 21 & 22/11 and also from the lower stretches of the El Aguacate road 23/11.
Narrow-billed Tody – 2 were seen on both visits to the El Aguacate road at mid altitude on both the 22 & 23/11, again this species is supposed to be commoner at the higher altitudes.
Hispaniolan Woodpecker – This is one of the commonest endemics and was seen on all but 2 days and everywhere from coastal tourist resorts to the wildest areas of the Sierra de Bahoruco.
Hispaniolan Pewee – Singles were seen on the Rabo de Gato trail and the El Aguacate road on the 22/11 and another was seen at a roadside stop whilst travelling North between Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata near to Bonao on the 26/11.
Palmchat – Very common around the coastal resorts that we visited but surprisingly less so around the Sierra de Bahoruco and Puerto Escondido indeed the only ones that we saw in this area were in a group of large Palm trees just past the stagnant pools on the Rabo de Gato trail.
Red-legged Thrush – I only saw this species on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic one in a hotel garden in Cabarete about 25 miles East of Puerto Plata and another along the nearby minor road that leads inland to a small village called Madre Vieja.
Green-tailed Warbler – 2 were seen on the 22/3 and one on the 23/3 on the El Aguacate road at mid altitudes and always with mixed warbler flocks.
Black-crowned Palm Tanager – this species often seemed to form small feeding flocks with some of the larger Hispaniolan forest birds such as the Woodpecker and the Trogon, 5 were seen on the Rabo de Gato trail on the 22/3 with another 2 on the El Aguacate road the same day. A further 7 were seen on the 23/3 again on the El Aguacate road. The only location I saw this bird away from the Sierra de Bahoruco was at the roadside stop whilst travelling North between Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata near to Bonao on the 26/11.
Hispaniolan Spindalis – It looks like a Stripe-headed Tanager and it sounds like a Stripe-headed Tanager but now it is called an Hispaniolan Spindalis. As you can probably tell I still haven’t got used to the name change but a few were seen on both trips up the El Aguacate road and some of them were smart looking males.
Antillean Euphonia – A couple of males were seen on the El Aguacate Road on both trips, usually singing from the very tops of the trees.
Little Blue Heron
Common Ground Dove
Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo
Antillean Palm Swift
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black & White Warbler
Greater Antillean Grackle
Black-crowned Palm Tanager