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THE FOCUS ON NATURE TOUR IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
"The Interesting Avifauna and Other Nature of Hispaniola
With Birds & Other Wildlife that's Rare, Endemic, Isolated, and with a History"
a species endemic to Hispaniola,
and the only member of a family also endemic.
A List & Photo Gallery of Caribbean Birds, in 2 parts
Birds during the FONT Dominican Republic Tour in April '06
Birds of the Dominican Republic
FONT Birding & Nature Tours in the Dominican Republic
The following narrative of the FONT Apr '06 Dominican Republic Tour was written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:
Republic, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, is truly an
interesting place for birding.
And that is what we did during our 14th tour there, April 1-8, 2006.
For the birds, and more, it's a great place to visit, and to experience, just a few short hours by plane from where many of us live in North America!
In relation to its nature, the Dominican Republic is an interesting place in many ways in addition to its birds. A primary reason for there being so much of interest is the diversity of habitats that exist on that island known as Hispaniola. It's the 2nd largest island in the Caribbean, after Cuba.
The Dominican Republic, occupying the eastern two-thirds of the island, is the 2nd largest country in the Caribbean, after Cuba.
In the 30,000 square miles of the country, there's a combination of highlands, lowlands, and highland valleys that have been divided into about 20 distinct geographical regions. Thus, it is one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world.
In the Central Mountains (the Cordillera Central), there's the highest peak in all of the Caribbean, rising to 3,175 meters (about 10,000 feet). Often, it's snow-capped.
On the other hand, the largest lake on the island (Lago Enriquillo) is about 115 meters (over 300 feet) below sea level. It was once a strait of the Caribbean Sea, and is now 3 times saltier than the sea. The lake is home to various birds, including Caribbean Flamingos, and to some other wildlife too, notably a population of American Crocodiles.
In the lowland desert around the lake, in addition to a good number of resident birds in the bushes and trees, there's a notable creature on the ground, the endangered Rhinoceros Iguana that's endemic to the desert habitat in that part of Hispaniola.
From the lake, as just noted, being about 300 feet below sea-level, it's possible to drive a dirt road that ascends high up into a mountain range called the Sierra de Bahoruco, a continuation of a Haitian range called Massif de la Selle.
Those mountains average an elevation of 1,600 meters (4800 feet), but some rise as high as 2,420 meters (7260 feet).
Thus, along the lower part of the dirt road, one is surrounded by acacia and cactus, while in the higher mountains, one is in extensive forests of pine trees (Pinus occidentalis), where crossbills live.
There's another notable bird that nests there in rocky cliffs, at the high altitude of about 7,000 feet. It's a noisy denizen of the night, flying in from the sea. The bird is the rare Black-capped Petrel, and in this mountain range of southwestern Hispaniola, it's believed that all, or nearly all, of them nest.
It's in the southwestern portion of the Dominican Republic, from the desert to the pine-clad mountains, and in between, and from the seacoast to the remote interior, that we did most of the birding during the tour.
Wonderful sights near the coast, at a shallow lake, included the pink Caribbean Flamingos, and the even-pinker Roseate Spoonbills, with flocks of White-cheeked Pintails.
At salt pans by the sea, there were numbers of white-morph Reddish Egrets and Black-necked Stilts, and both Snowy and Wilson's Plovers together.
On the floor of a dry forest, a Key West Quail-Dove walked by. High in the sky, during the day, Antillean Palm-Swifts and Caribbean Martins caught insects. In the evening sky, Antillean Nighthawks flew overhead, giving their katydid-like calls.
A wonderful sound in the mountain forest was the long whistling note of the Rufous-throated Solitaire.
As already said, the Dominican Republic is a great place for birding due to the diversity of habitats. But there is another significant reason why the birding there is so interesting.
It's due to the isolation that has occurred after many, many years for certain bird populations on one particular island in a group of islands. As a result, there are a number of species and subspecies that are now endemic to Hispaniola. And, actually, there's even a bird family that's endemic to the island.
No, we didn't see the ghostly Black-capped Petrels on the misty mountaintop at night, but we did see many birds during our April '06 tour. Our total was 133 species. Of these, nearly 30 were endemic to Hispaniola. Additionally, we saw over 15 subspecies endemic to the island. All of these species and subspecies that we found during the tour are listed here:
An ENDEMIC SPECIES in an ENDEMIC FAMILY:
Other ENDEMIC SPECIES:
White-fronted (or Hispaniolan) Quail-Dove (formerly called the Gray-headed Quail-Dove when it was conspecific with Cuban bird that's now called the Gray-fronted Quail-Dove)
Hispaniolan Conure (or Parakeet)
Hispaniolan Amazon (or Parrot)
Hispaniolan Nightjar (called Greater Antillean Nightjar when considered conspecific with Cuban population)
Least Poorwill (has been called Least Pauraque)
Hispaniolan Emerald (a hummingbird)
Golden Swallow (now most likely an endemic species, as the subspecies in Jamaica has not been seen in years)
White-necked Crow (now an endemic species as the bird has been extirpated in Puerto Rico since 1963)
Hispaniolan Palm Crow (an endemic species, now considered distinct from the Cuban Palm Crow)
Green-tailed Ground Warbler
Hispaniolan Highland Tanager (has been called White-winged Warbler)
Hispaniolan Spindalis (formerly part of the wider-ranging Stripe-headed Tanager, that has been split into 4 species)
Black-crowned Tanager (has been called Black-crowned Palm-Tanager)
Gray-crowned Tanager (has been called Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager; nearly endemic to Haiti)
Hispaniolan Oriole (was part of the wider ranging Black-cowled Oriole that was in both Central America and the Caribbean; now that species is in Central America)
Hispaniolan Crossbill (has been considered part of the Two-barred, or White-winged, Crossbill of northern North America and Eurasia)
Limpkin (now an endemic subspecies as the bird has been extirpated in Puerto Rico)
Burrowing Owl (this is now the only subspecies remaining in the Caribbean; 2 others, in Antigua & Guadeloupe, have been extirpated)
Antillean Mango (a hummingbird)
Greater Antillean Elaenia
Yellow Warbler (this endemic subspecies has been called the "Golden Warbler")
Bananaquit (1 of 41 subspecies throughout its extensive range)
Antillean Euphonia (at one time was called the Blue-hooded Euphonia, when it was conspecific with what's now the Elegant Euphonia of Central America & the Golden-rumped Euphonia of South America; Euphonias are now in the same family as finches.)
Greater Antillean Grackle
Greater Antillean Bullfinch
Rufous-collared Sparrow (the only subspecies in the West Indies of this wide-ranging species in South & Central America; in the Dominican Republic, it occurs only high in the Central Mountains. There's another subspecies at sea-level on the Caribbean islands of Curacao & Aruba, closer to South America.)
Endemic subspecies of the Double-striped Thick-knee and the Stygian Owl are yet to be found during future FONT tours.
The endemic subspecies of the Northern Potoo was not found during our April '06 tour, but it has been during other FONT Dominican Republic tours.
A good number of the birds of Hispaniola are rare. Those below are designated as such by Birdlife International in the following categories:
Ridgway's Hawk (not found during the April '06 tour, but has been with FONT in the past)
West Indian Whistling-Duck
White-fronted (or Hispaniolan, formerly Gray-headed) Quail-Dove
Hispaniolan Conure (or Parakeet)
Hispaniolan Amazon (or Parrot)
Hispaniolan Highland Tanager (formerly White-winged Warbler)
Hispaniolan Palm Crow
Some of the most explicit examples of isolated bird populations in the Dominican Republic are: Antillean Piculet, Hispaniolan Crossbill, Pine Warbler, and the Rufous-collared Sparrow.
Piculets are small woodpeckers that in the New World occur mostly in South America, with one species ranging north into Central America. Not only is the Antillean Piculet isolated from the others, there's something particularly interesting about the species.
Because the Dominican Republic is one of the world's few places with amber, it was there that a notable find could be made of a preserved fossil in it.
That fossil, with portions of feathers, was determined to be the oldest known fossil of Picidae (or the woodpecker family) in the New World.
It was determined to be an Antillean Piculet, or a very closely related form. The fossil is older than the lower Early Miocene Period. And that's way back. Studies have shown that other fossils, or bones, of Picidae elsewhere have placed them back to the Middle Miocene. The fossilized Piculet feather also represents the first pre-Pleistocene bird to be found in the West Indies. Put another way, that's before the Glacial Age.
Pleistocene times were about 85,000,000 years ago. The crossbill in Hispaniola goes back that far (to the Glacial Age). Since then it has been in the pine forests high in the mountains of Hispaniola.
As to its discovery there, it's one of the bird species on the island that was first found in the 20th Century, in 1916. The closely related White-winged, or Two-barred, Crossbill is, of course, as already noted, a bird of the northern forests in both the New and Old Worlds.
The subspecies of the Pine Warbler in the Dominican Republic is, like the crossbill, a resident of the Hispaniolan pines. Now a permanent resident, it never leaves the island to occur where the species does otherwise in North America.
The Rufous-collared Sparrow is a species of mostly South America. In the northern part of its range, in Central America, it occurs only in the highlands. The isolated subspecies in the Dominican Republic only occurs at high elevations in the Central Mountains, favoring savannas in the pines. It is, as already noted, the only population in the West Indies. (Curacao & Aruba, where there is another subspecies, are not considered to be in the faunal region of the West Indies.)
Todies only occur in the West Indies. Those tiny little bright green jewels, a bit like hummingbirds, a bit like flycatchers, are most closely related to kingfishers.
There are 5 species of todies, occurring endemically on 4 islands. Hispaniola is the only island with 2 species of todies.
The Broad-billed Tody generally occurs up to 3,000 feet above sea level.
The Narrow-billed Tody is generally at higher altitudes. At some places, the two live side by side. They do not interbreed.
Todies are small, but the Vervain Hummingbird is smaller. It is closely related to the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba that's said to be the smallest bird in the world. The Vervain, also tiny, measures only 6 centimeters and weighs only 1.6 grams.
Some of the birds of the Dominican Republic have had, in years gone by, what might be called an identity crisis. One, for example, is the Flat-billed Vireo was discovered, "new to science", back in 1885, when it was called an empidonax flycatcher. It remained in the flycatcher group for years, but in a different genus. It was as late as 1917 when it was first said to be a vireo. For a vireo, it has a peculiar bill (that's what caused the confusion). It's broad, depressed, and triangular. Vireos usually have a slightly decurved bill with a small notch.
Also with an identity crisis of sorts, the Greater Antillean Elaenia (a true flycatcher), was "discovered" twice. It was first described in the Dominican Republic in 1807, when it was given the scientific name Muscicapa albicapilla. Nothing was written about its habits, its form, or its family. So, in 1895, it was "discovered" again, and said at that time to be "new to science", and given the scientific name Elaenia cherri (named after the person who was thought at that time to have discovered the bird). It was as late as 1931 when the bird was studied scientifically and given the scientific name that it has today, Elaenia fallax. The first discovery in 1807 was apparently at a low elevation. Subsequently, after the lowland pine forests were completely destroyed, the bird has been found in higher countryside, mostly in areas with pines in the mountains, generally higher than 3,000 feet above sea level.
It was noted earlier that the Hispaniolan Crossbill was first found in 1916. There are also other Hispaniolan birds that were discovered as recently as the 20th Century, including the Least Poorwill, LaSelle Thrush, and Hispaniolan Highland Tanager (that's been the White-winged Warbler).
The Least Poorwill had for a while a scanty history, after the first specimen was collected in 1917. At that time, the small nightjar, that has also been called the Least Pauraque, was given the scientific name Microsiphonorhis brewsteri. The genus was changed in 1928 to Siphonorhis. From that year until 1969, there were very few, if any, reports of the bird, that locally is called "El Torico".
The nice thing is that today this species of Siphonorhis can still be found. The only other member of the genus, Siphonorhis americana, the Jamaican Pauraque, is now believed to be extinct.
The shy LaSelle Thrush was discovered in mountains of southern Haiti, known as the Massif de la Selle, in 1927. It was not recorded elsewhere until 1971, when it was found to be in the Bahoruco Mountains in the southwest Dominican Republic. In 1986, it was determined that the La Selle Thrush that had just recently been found in the Central Mountains of the Dominican Republic was a different subspecies.
The Hispaniolan Highland Tanager (formerly the White-winged Warbler) was yet another Hispaniolan bird that was discovered in the 20th Century. When it was described in 1917, it was given the scientific name Microligea montana. It occurs high in the montanas (or mountains). In 1967, the bird became the single member of its genus, and the new name given to it at that time was Xenoligea montana.
And that ends our review of some of the Hispaniolan birds that were seen during the FONT April '06 Dominican Republic tour, noting interesting items about them - among those birds that are endemic, those that are rare, those with a history, and those isolated on an island, with rough and varied terrain, in the Caribbean Sea.
In conclusion, here, however, mention must be made of another creature, a mammal, also endemic and rare, and with a history that goes way back as it lived in isolation on Hispaniola. The creature has an odd name. It's called a Solenodon. It has an odd appearance, being about 18 to 23 inches long, with a long nose at one end and a long tail at the other. It moves about with an odd gait. Recently it has been determined that the animal makes ultrasonic vocalizations - twitters, chirps, and clicks.
By day, it sleeps in small caves or hollow tree trunks.
At night, it feeds on a variety of insects, worms, and other small vertebrates. We saw a Solenodon, during the April '06 tour, at night, as it passed by in the lit area in front of our vehicle. We were lucky to see it well, after we had just seen an Ashy-faced Owl nearby as it flew from a fencepost. Had we inadvertently saved a rare Solenodon?
There are now two species of Solenodons. One is native to Hispaniola; the other to Cuba. In the Dominican Republic it is locally called a "jutia".
But that's not to confuse it with the other indigenous Hispaniola mammal, the Hutia, which is smaller, about 30 centimeters in length, Like its larger cousin, the Solenodon, the Hutia spends its days in cavities, and emerges to hunt and eat only at night.
There are still about a dozen species of Hutias in the Caribbean, mostly in Cuba, but also on some other islands. Many of these species are now critically endangered.
There used to be about 15 other species of Hutias, and even some Giant-Hutias. They are now extinct, with most having become so in the 1600s.
Imagine what it would have been like to visit Hispaniola back before the arrival of Columbus, back when there were Giant-Hutias, and when among the birds, there was an endemic macaw. As good as it is to visit nowadays, as we did in April 2006, imagine what it would have been back in those days now gone.
Still, however, just a plane-ride away, it doesn't get much better, for a few days with birding that's very good, in a place that is, for most of us, so naturally different.
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