Dominican Holiday Part 1: Arrival in Punta Cana

Skipper sp.

After the worst two weeks of winter including frigid temperatures, enough snow to break the record for January (97 cm total as of January 29th) and enough OC Transpo delays and missing buses to induce a severe case of transit rage, my fiancé and I were lucky to have planned to spend the first week of February at an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Our plane was supposed to leave on Saturday at 2:35 pm direct to Punta Cana, but heavy snow that morning meant a delay of almost five hours. We didn’t arrive in Punta Cana until 12:30 Sunday morning, and it was almost another hour before our heads hit the pillow despite an easy time at Customs and no traffic to slow us down. There were, however, lots of speed bumps en route, making me wonder about the drivers in the city.

As a result of our late arrival, I didn’t see much of the country or the resort until the following morning. My habit of waking up early meant it was time to get up at 7:30 (aka 6:30 am EST), and as it was already light out I stepped out on the 3rd-floor balcony to get my first look at the resort.

View from the balcony

We were high enough to see the tops of the palm trees and the sky above the buildings, and the first thing I saw were about two dozen swifts flitting through the air. The swifts seemed smaller than the Chimney Swifts back home, with white on the belly and a white band across the rump, and I identified them as Antillean Palm-swifts. They were vocal as well, making a musical chittering sound that sounded more like a Cedar Waxwing than a swift. This was my first life bird in the Dominican. As usual I had brought a list of target species with me, and this was listed as number 3 on the list of expected species in the province of La Altagracia at 58%. They are found only on the islands of Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti.

The second bird I noticed was the Greater Antillean Grackle, not because there was one immediately in view but because I could hear them calling and making their typical grackle vocalizations all over the place. I finally noticed a pair in the palm trees across the resort road. They looked just like the Great-tailed Grackles I’ve seen in Las Vegas and Mexico, and I was really glad these two species can be identified by location alone because I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish them based on their appearance. Unlike Great-tailed Grackles, however, males and females look identical – black with yellow eyes. The two species also have different vocalizations, which is helpful; I watched a male puff himself up and let out a song that was rather more musical than I expected – a three-part call that sounded something like “key-key-chain!” This species is found only on Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Cayman Islands. Breeding season is clearly under way as I saw several young birds following their parents around begging for food. Like the Great-tailed Grackles of Mexico, they are smart and fly into the open thatch-roofed huts where food is served looking for crumbs on the floor or even on the tables. The Greater Antillean Grackle was number 4 on my list of target species.

Greater Antillean Grackles

The third bird I observed was a familiar one from open fields back home – something larger than a swift zoomed by and landed on the roof of the building across the road. I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to ever get a nice photo of an American Kestrel, but this one was in camera range and stayed long enough to get a few photos!

American Kestrel

The palm trees surrounding my balcony were equally productive. In the 40 minutes I sat outside I saw a Yellow-throated Warbler, a Bananaquit, and two more lifers – three Hispanolian Woodpeckers, and five Palmchats, numbers one and two on my list of target species. The woodpeckers landed on the trunk of the palm tree next to our balcony, while the group of Palmchats were busy foraging in a shrub two storeys below. Both of these speciess are endemic to the island of Hispaniola, and are quite common everywhere so I was expecting to see them. I wasn’t expecting the woodpecker to be so beautiful with its gold and black barring on the back, or the Palmchat to be so social – whenever I saw them they tended to flock in groups.

Hispaniolan Woodpecker – number 1 on my list of target species

Palmchat – number 2 on my list of target species

Three Great Egrets flying by in the distance, two Mourning Doves, and a Gray Kingbird perchingd in the branches of a leafless tree were also seen from the balcony. I was thrilled that I could see 10 species from my room, but I was curious as to what else I could find! I went for a walk while waiting for Doran to get up (unlike me, he has no issues sleeping in after a late night) and wandered down to the beach. The water was bright turquoise, just like in the photos, though there were more waves than I expected. I thought the island was within the Caribbean Sea, but it turns out that Punta Cana on the northeast coast faces the Atlantic Ocean. The sand was soft and white, and there were enough palm trees scattered on the beach to provide some shade. I was hoping to find a few gulls and pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds, but all I saw were beachgoers and resort workers. I figured I needed to get up right at sunrise in order to see any wildlife at such a popular spot.

Atlantic Ocean

I headed back toward the front lobby, following winding paths that led me to the outer edges of the resort. I saw more Palmchats, grackles, and Gray Kingbirds, which I remembered from our trip to Florida. I also I added three more species to my Dominican list – a pair of Northern Mockingbirds, several Eurasian Collared Doves, and my first hummingbird of the trip!

Gray Kingbird

I found the hummingbird feeding on the Lantana flowers a few minutes’ walk beyond the resort lobby. There is a nice flower bed there full of Lantana in bloom, and I originally stopped when I saw the butterflies (mostly skippers) flitting about. So far I’d only seen the odd butterfly flying over the resort; it wasn’t like Costa Rica where they were everywhere. I was happy to discover this little bit of butterfly paradise, even happier when the hummingbird stopped by to sip the nectar as well!

She was a female (of course) and small. There are only three hummingbird species resident in the Dominican: the Vervain Hummingbird, which at 2.5 inches is the second smallest bird in the world; the Antillean Mango, a large hummingbird at 4.5-5 inches; and the Hispaniolan Emerald, in between the two at 4 inches. And of course, the females of all three look the same, metallic green over white with a black bill. The bill of the Antillean Mango is decurved while the bills of the other two species are straight. Its bill was too straight and she was too small to be the Antillean Mango, but as the Hispaniolan Emerald is only found in the mountains, my hummingbird had to be a Vervain Hummingbird! She wasn’t as small as I had expected, but that may be because I had been watching the skippers on the flowers for a while and she was definitely bigger than the butterflies! The Vervain Hummingbird was number 11 on my list.

Vervain Hummingbird

There appeared to be quite a few skippers feeding on the flowers, and I am still trying to identify them. I believe this one is an Ocola Skipper – also known as the Long-winged Skipper – given the length of the forewing in relation to the hindwing and the plain brown colours of its wings.

Ocala Skipper

It was a good walk, and later in the day once Doran got up I added two more species to the trip list: a friendly male House Sparrow that visited our table in the little snack hut by the poll, and a pair of White-cheeked Pintails in the only natural pond on the resort, a murky snaking pool with a few mangrove plants, a couple of rocks, a couple of fountains, two turtles and a lot of fish!

White-cheeked Pintail

There wasn’t enough emergent vegetation to provide habitat for dragonflies, which may be why I have seen only the odd ode flying by on the resort. I was surprised to see the pintails, another lifer, and the turtles, which I presume are captive. Still, the pond was a nice find as it has at least some life in it!

It was a great start to the trip, and I loved seeing all these new species for the first time. The weather was warm and sunny, and it was nice to be able to go outside without my nose immediately starting to run or my eyes watering in the cold winter wind. It was a great choice to visit the Dominican Republic, and I ended our first day feeling happy with the resort!

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