Birding with Explora! Ecotour in the National Park of the East

Vervain Hummingbird

Our third day in the Dominican Republic was spent birding with Explora! Ecotours. I was excited to book them as they are a small, sustainable ecotourism company operating tours from many cities in the Dominican Republic, including Punta Cana. By the time I contacted them to arrange a tour, they only had one tour available – a trip to Parque Nacional Del Este (the National Park of the East, aka National Park Cotubanama). Their website claims that this is the best birding site in the eastern Dominican Republic, as the park is a vast nature preserve that provides habitat for endemic, native, and migratory birds. Their goal on this excursion is to find as many of the Dominican’s 32 endemic species as possible. This sounded wonderful to me, for the key to finding different species is to visit as many different habitats as possible. While the birds at the resort were great, I knew I could see a lot more on a guided tour.

Manny Jimenez was our tour guide, and we arranged to meet at the security gate at 7:00 am – Doran and I were both happy it wasn’t a super-early pick-up time. Unfortunately, only a few approved tour operators are allowed into the resort itself to pick up guests outside the front lobby; a lot of guides aren’t, and there was a bit of a traffic jam outside the resort when we got there. This was the first time we had walked up to the gate, and to my surprise there was a large swamp just beyond the road. The water was only visible through a couple of places due to the vines and shrubs growing beyond the manicured hedge next to the sidewalk, but through the gaps we could see large bare trees and several white birds that could only be egrets!

After ascertaining that Manny’s Explora! Ecotour van was not among the traffic jam we walked past the vehicles to watch out for him. As usual I was wearing my binoculars to make identification easy – most tourists were wearing sun hats and carried beach towels over their arms. Manny arrived within five minutes and found us easily, and we got into the van and drove out of the mess. Driving through town was an adventure – the streets were narrow, and there were lots of large tour buses and mopeds jostling for space. Then we were out on the highway heading west to the park.

Along the way Manny explained a lot about his country’s history, culture, and politics. We learned that the native Taino (pronounced “Tah-eeno”) people who inhabited the island prior to the arrival of the Spanish were eventually eradicated by Spanish settlers who enslaved them to work the gold mines and then fought them when the Taino rebelled. We also learned that the president, who is elected, is currently seeking a way to increase the number of presidential terms from two to three so that he can stay in power. Ironically, we saw the president’s cavalcade not only on the way to the National Park of the East, but also on the way back!

The drive wasn’t very scenic – Manny explained that this part of the Dominican was very flat, and indeed contained the largest lowland plains in the Caribbean Islands. In the distance we could see mountains, while sugar cane grew in fields near the road. There are several different mountain ranges in the Dominican Republic, which helps to explain the diversity of species found here. Also, Hispaniola is the oldest island of the Caribbean, as its mountains were the first to emerge from the water as a result of shifting tectonic plates – in fact, the island is still rising today. I didn’t see many birds on the drive, other than a few groups of Turkey Vultures and large numbers of Cattle Egrets where cows were grazing.

When we arrived at our destination we found ourselves on a beach just outside of the town of Bayahibe. As soon as we got out of the van I saw a Gray Kingbird fly over, and heard a couple of House Sparrows. We sprayed up for mosquitoes, though I didn’t hear or see any on our walk, and set off down the path. It was a nice little trail that ran parallel to the ocean, with a screen of vegetation about 20-30 feet between the trail and the beach.

Caribbean Sea

I hadn’t studied as much for this trip as I did for Costa Rica, so when I saw my first lifer flitting about high in the treetops I called out the field marks to Manny: “A small black bird with a bright red throat” and he responded, “Lesser Antillean Bullfinch”. It was a pretty bird, but too high up in the leaves to photograph.

Next I saw a bird land on a branch close to the ground in the dense thickets and said, “Gray thrush with a red bill” and he said, “Red-legged Thrush”. This robin-like bird was one of the ones that I most wanted to see, and while I was happy to catch a quick glimpse of one, I was hoping for better views.

Along the trail Manny pointed out several Black-crowned Palm Tanagers; they were quite common, although not very cooperative for photography….they would perch on a branch just long enough to raise my camera, then fly off before I could focus on them. As a result, my only photo was zoomed out quite a bit. The Black-crowned Palm Tanager was number 12 on my list, and is one of the endemic species of Hispaniola I was hoping to see.

Black-crowned Palm-tanager

Lots of butterflies were flying along the trail; the two main species were the gray and white crackers I remembered from Costa Rica and Large Orange Sulphurs. The crackers liked to perch on the tree trunks, while the sulphurs were busy sipping nectar from the flowers in one of the open areas.

Cracker sp.

Large Orange Sulphur

There were also lots of hummingbirds in the area. We saw (and heard) at least seven Vervain Hummingbirds and one Antillean Mango. The Vervain Hummingbirds were calling and perching and feeding on the flowers; I was happy to get a couple of photos of them perching out in the open.

Vervain Hummingbird

Vervain Hummingbird

A little further along we heard the strangest calls – they sounded like something out of Jurassic Park. Manny pointed out a pair of black crows flying over, identifying them as the endemic White-necked Crow. These birds look a lot like our American Crows except for the blood red eyes. The white is not visible on the neck when the feathers are smooth; if they are ruffled, the white bases show more readily. We later saw them in the trees close to the water, and I was only able to manage a couple of poor photos. The White-necked Crow was number 24 on my list of expected species.

White-necked Crow

A Hispaniolan Lizard cuckoo (number six on my list of target species) was much more cooperative; we saw it skulking near the ground close to the trail, and although we got good looks at it, it always remained partially hidden behind the vegetation. Manny also said he heard a Mangrove Cuckoo, but we weren’t able to spot one on the trip.

One of the birds I really wanted to see was the endemic Broad-billed Tody. This small bird looks like a cross between a hummingbird and a songbird – it is a round ball of feathers that is grass-green above and white tinged with yellow and pink below. The throat is red, the bill is long and straight and orange, and its eyes are dark. Manny led us off-trail a few times when he heard the tell-tale vocalizations and rattling of the wings. These birds like to forage around eye-level or lower, and the challenge was spotting a green and white bird among the green leaves and bright sun-dapples. Eventually he found it sitting on a vine out in the open, several layers deep. I got a nice view through the screen of vegetation, but no pictures. There were a few pairs along the trail, and while our views got better and better, I wasn’t able to photograph a single one.

We were not so lucky with the vireos. We heard two species singing in the trees overhead, the endemic Flat-billed Vireo and the Black-whiskered Vireo. The Black-whiskered Vireo sounded quite similar to the Red-eyed Vireo, while the Flat-billed Vireo sounded dissimilar although I still recognized it as a vireo. Although Manny tried hard to get on several individuals, neither species would respond to playback – even though we could tell which tree they were in, they wouldn’t move enough to catch our attention. Eventually I had to leave these two species as “heard only”.

The other bird we had no luck seeing was the Antillean Piculet, a small woodpecker endemic to Hispaniola that finds food by gleaning rather than pecking. I really wanted to see this bird as it has a crown reminiscent of a Golden-crowned Kinglet – yellow on top, while the males also have an orange spot on top of the yellow. None of the piculets we heard showed the slightest interest in Manny’s recordings.

Park Trail

We save a few familiar birds from back home, including a Northern Parula, a Black-and-white Warbler, a female American Redstart, and a couple of waterthrushes lurking on the ground – neither of them sang, so I was unable to tell which species they were. A juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron stood on the dirt trail in the shade, looking for crabs according to Manny. It didn’t stay long once we began walking toward it.

I also saw some lizards, called Bark Anoles, resting on tree trunks with their heads facing downward. I was amused when one began doing push-ups on the tree; Manny said this was a territorial behavior. This species is native to Hispaniola and the Bahamas, and later found its way to Florida in 1946. It spends most its time on tree trunks and, like many anoles, is highly variable in color.

Bark Anole

Bark Anole

A Stolid Flycatcher perched out in the open for a few seconds – this Myiarchus species resembles the familiar Great Crested Flycatcher that breeds in Ontario, but as it is only Myiarchus species on the island of Hispaniola, its identification is an easy one. It is found on both Jamaica and Hispaniola, as well as several near-shore islands.

We didn’t get too far down the trail before it was time to turn back. The White-necked Crows flew over us again, and the Broad-billed Todies called from the forest. I saw a lizard on the ground with a yellow striped face and red beneath the tail, and Manny said it was a curly-tailed lizard. Back near the parking lot Manny pointed out a small swampy area that appeared to contain run-off from the two buildings. This was the best part of the visit, as we saw a Spotted Sandpiper walking along a log above the water, a Red-legged Thrush perching on the ground nearby, a couple of Palmchats and Bananaquits, and another lifer – the Pearly-eyed Thrasher! This bird sat out on a branch for a few minutes, so at least I was able to photograph it – usually thrashers are notorious for quickly vanishing into the thickets when they realize they have been seen. Found on Puerto Rico and many of the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles, this species never used to inhabit the island of Hispaniola until a hurricane blew a few over. This bird is extremely adaptable and is quick to colonize new places, especially those where bird diversity is poor. In fact, it is known as an “avian supertramp” – a type of bird whose survival strategy includes high dispersion among many different habitats, despite not specializing in any of them. It is able to fill vacant or underexploited niches, and can quickly adapt to different altitudinal ranges, habitat types, diet, and foraging techniques in order to succeed.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher

I thought that the thrasher was the highlight of the day, but as we turned to leave I noticed a brown bird swooping over the bay. Manny said it was a pelican, but the shape and the bill were all wrong and I said, “I think that’s a booby!” I went rushing toward the water and sure enough, a Brown Booby was taking passes over the dock and the bay nearby. However, a Brown Pelican was also flying over the water, so Manny and I had been looking at two different birds. The Brown Booby was a lifer for me, and not one that I expected to see – it is a true seabird found offshore in the tropics, and I thought I would need to take a cruise or a pelagic excursion to see one. This one plunged into the water once, circled back toward the dock, then flew closer and landed right in front of me! When I got back to the car Manny said one had been hanging around the beach recently – still, it was an unexpected surprise!

Brown Booby

Manny was an excellent guide and he worked hard to try to get the stubborn vireos, piculet and Broad-billed Tody to show themselves. I guess if I had to choose to see only of them, it would have been the Broad-billed Tody anyway so I was lucky in that regard. I enjoyed seeing the warblers and wondered if they were Ottawa birds that would be returning to my area in the spring. The butterflies were amazing, and even the lizards were cool, though I would have liked a photo of the curly-tailed lizard. I would definitely recommend Manny as a guide, and hope to return to sample some of his other tours!

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