Oceanic islands are fascinating to anyone with an interest in biology. Thrust up from the deep ocean floor, oceanic islands are blank canvases. Colonization of plants and animals from continental areas occurs by rafting or by being carried on the wind. Some of these colonists establish a stronghold on the new island, enriching the diversity. Over time, these colonists often diverge from their mainland relatives, producing new species. Thus, endemic species are born, found nowhere else.
Oceanic islands often occur in groups so adjacent islands serve as sources of colonists as well. A group of oceanic islands may have shared endemic species as well as species endemic to a single island.
The Caribbean islands offer the opportunity to see a diversity endemic species. For birds, Cuba has 30 endemic species, Jamaica has 30, Puerto Rico has 18 and the winner in the endemic species contest is Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) with 32 endemic species. Other smaller islands have their own endemic species. In addition, some species are restricted to the Caribbean but are found on multiple islands. Altogether, the Caribbean offers over 170 bird species that can be seen nowhere else.
In January, my wife Bets and I along with our friends Pat and Dave Lincoln participated in a guided tour of the Dominican Republic with the goal of finding all 31 endemic bird species (one Hispaniolan endemic is found only in Haiti).
As a hedge against a winter storm in Maine, Bets and I booked a flight a day early to make sure we would arrive in the Dominican Republic when the tour started. We used that extra day to explore the colonial area of Santo Domingo. We had no trouble finding our first endemic, the Palm Chat. This streaked bird, about the size of a Blue Jay, is common everywhere. It is the Dominican national bird. This species is so different from other birds that it is placed in its own family, the Dulidae. DNA comparisons tell us that waxwings are its closest relatives.
We found Hispaniolan Parakeets as well. Oddly, this species seems to be most common in urban areas. Other species seen included Antillean Palm Swifts, Gray Kingbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Bananaquits.
Our tour began the following day with a trip to the National Botanical Garden in Santo Domingo.
Antillean Grackles greeted us at the gate. The cement trails through the extensive garden made for easy walking.
We saw lots of familiar birds, particularly warblers. Black-and-white Warblers, Cape May Warblers, American Redstarts, Northern Parulas and Prairie Warblers were common.
Stolid Flycatchers flitted around as well. A Red-legged Thrush was spectacular in the sunlight.
With considerable effort, we got good looks at Black-whiskered Vireos. We got great views of a Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo and Hispaniolan Woodpeckers, our third and fourth island endemics of the trip.
A few West Indian Whistling-ducks, included eight polka-dotted ducklings, showed nicely. We saw a few tiny Vervain Hummingbirds, the second smallest bird in the world, barely larger than the Cuban Bumblebee Hummingbird.
On the way out, we found a Black-capped Palm-Tanager, another endemic I was keen to see. This species, along with three other Hispaniolan species, is placed in its own family, the Phaenicophilidae.
With five endemics under our belt, we headed to the southwestern part of the country. Our home for the next two nights was Villa Barancoli, a field station in Puerto Escondido. Arriving late in the day, we got a nice look at White-necked Crows for another endemic species under our belts. A brief walk at dusk yielded Common Gallinules, Green Herons and a Baltimore Oriole
After a nice dinner, we all hit the sack. We departed at 4 AM in three four-wheel drive vehicles the next day for one of the most memorable birding days of my life.
We departed at 4:00 AM from Villa Barancolí in Puerto Escondido to visit the mountainous region of Sierra de Bahoruco National Park at Zapoten, just east of the Haitian border.
We departed in three four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles for the eight-mile ride to the field site. The last six miles of the trip were over a boulder-strewn road with frequent wash-outs. It took us nearly two hours to drive those six miles.
It was still pitch-dark when we arrived and our first quarry of the day, Hispaniolan Nightjar, would not begin to vocalize until closer to dawn. Attracted by a recording, one male perched briefly over a branch spanning the road and we got short but satisfying looks at this island endemic.
Our next target was La Selle’s Thrush, a dead ringer for an American Robin in silhouette but strikingly colored and furtive. The birds come out on the road to forage at dawn but are difficult to see at other times of the day. This species became our nemesis. Several whizzed across the track, affording no views. Our leader walked further up the track and found one foraging on the road. By the time our party had gotten to the scope, a Zenaida Dove had landed on the road and scared the thrush away. But a White-fronted Quail-Dove, an endemic even more secretive than La Selle’s Thrush, walked onto the road.
As the sun rose, we gave up on the La Selle’s Thrush for the morning and concentrated on other birds. Where to start? Hispaniolan Emeralds, an endemic hummingbird, flitted about as we had our picnic breakfasts.
Different species kept popping up, each as wonderful as the one before. We had Hispaniolan Trogons, Antillean Piculet (a woodpecker relative), Hispaniolan Pewees, Golden Swallows and wonderful flutists, Rufous-sided Solitaires.
We saw several delightful Narrow-billed Todies. These are small but feisty green birds with long, thin bills. The four species of todies are all endemic to the Greater Antilles and two of them are only found in Hispaniola.
I was most eager to see several species whose taxonomic position has only recently been clarified. We saw some Western Chat-tanagers, one of two members of the endemic family, Calyptophilidae. These are skulking birds, difficult to see well.
We found White-winged Warblers and Green-tailed Warblers, both now classified in the Phaenicophilidae family along with the Black-crowned Palm-Tanager. Common names can be confusing!
We also found the stripe-headed endemic Hispaniolan Spindalis, one of four species in the family Spindalidae, found only in the Greater Antilles and Bahamas.
We drove around mid-day to a stand of pines in hopes of finding Hispaniolan Crossbill (a dead ringer for our White-winged Crossbill). We heard lots of Pine Warblers and finally spotted a couple of crossbills at the top of a large pine.
All of these endemic birds were joined by familiar friends: Northern Parulas, Black-and-white Warblers, Cape May Warblers and Black-throated Blue Warblers.
Later in the afternoon, a few of us were walking along the track and we heard a call note that seemed identical to a call note I have heard at tree line on Mt. Katahdin. Patience rewarded us with views of a Bicknell’s Thrush. Nearly all of these birds winter in Hispaniola and nest mainly in northern New England.
Determined to see La Selle’s Thrush, we decided to pile into a single pick-up and drive the track, hoping a thrush would be found foraging on the road at dusk. We got to hear several singing and had brief views. A Hispaniolan Parrot was a nice addition.
Departing in darkness, we arrived at Villa Barancolí for a late supper after an exhausting but exhilarating day.
After a spectacular day in Zapoten in the southwestern part of the country, we had found 24 of the 31 endemic species. The following morning, we left for La Placa with to search for three target species.
Our first target, Flat-billed Vireo, was easily found along with a couple of Broad-billed Todies. A Merlin whizzed by.
The second target, the Bay-breasted Cuckoo, is a species that most visiting birders fail to find. Our hopes were up when a large cuckoo appeared. Alas, it was the endemic Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, an endemic we had already found.
Our local guide suggested a different site. Sure enough, we heard the call of the Bay-breasted. It responded to a tape of its call and perched in view for several minutes. We were sky high!
A road alongside pastures and occasional trees held our last endemic of the morning, Hispaniolan Oriole. We also had nice views of Yellow-faced Grassquits.
After a nice lunch in Puerto Escondido, we departed for our motel in Pedernales. We made our usual pre-dawn departure the next day for the Alcoa Road in search of Ashy-faced Owl. No luck that morning so we headed to Cabo Rojo (Red Cape) after dawn to look for seabirds. Several White-tailed Tropicbirds delighted us there.
We continued from Cabo Rojo to a lagoon teeming with birds.
We saw dozens of Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers and Stilt Sandpipers. The assemblage could have been seen in Scarborough Marsh except for the Reddish Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and White Ibises.
Back to the Alcoa Road, this time in search of Hispaniolan Palm Crows. We knew that a local ranger fed them and they usually arrived mid-morning. So we began a vigil, enjoying the Pine Warblers and Hispaniolan Parrots in the area while we waited.
A couple of crows called to announce their arrival and then landed on the ground, affording great views. Our 28th endemic species! A Hispaniolan Crossbill was an added bonus.
After a delightful lunch, we headed east for Cachote. We began the drive up the very rough road at dusk in search of Ashy-faced Owl. Our leader walked a bit ahead and located a perched owl. He about to call us when two mopeds drove past from one direction and a pick-up truck form the other, blaring loud music with a bunch of adolescent girls singing along from the back of the truck. The owl was gone!
Fortunately, our leader was able to relocate the owl and we all got great looks at this Barn Owl relative.
We descended to our motel, departing pre-dawn the next day.
We returned to Cachote, proceeding much further up the mountain. Our goal was the Eastern Chat-Tanager, an endemic that is mostly found in the eastern part of the country. Arriving at the site just after dawn, we got many brief but ultimately satisfying views of these skulkers.
We then began the long drive to Caño Hondo in the northeastern part of the country in search of our last endemic, the rare Ridgway’s Hawk.
We arrived after dark in heavy rain that continued all night. The next morning, we slogged along the muddy trail with a local guide to an observation site.
A bridge across a small stream was underwater from all the rain. We had to take off our boots, roll up our pants legs and wade across. It was worth it: a female Ridgway’s Hawk perched out in the open for over 15 minutes.
The hawk was our final target. Thanks to our knowledgeable leaders, we managed to find all 31 of the endemic birds of the Dominican Republic.
The next day, everyone got to see Caribbean Martins at the Santo Domingo Airport for a nice parting gift from this wonderful country.