Sunday, February 25, 2018

Mid-Atlantic Presidents' Day Birding Trip 2018

I don't mean to brag but we were running out of places to see new birds within driving distance. So we turned to ebird to see if any interesting birds were around. Ebird is an online database of bird observations reported by birders worldwide. The site is maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is a true gift from heaven for birders in this digital age. Two bird species quickly drew our attention: a Green-tailed Towhee near Syracuse and a Harris's Sparrow near Washington D.C. After careful consideration, we decided to hunt for a Harris's Sparrow only because we felt it was more likely to stick around, call it a birder's hunch.

FEBRUARY 17, 2018 hello, Mr. Harris!

We left Brooklyn before 7am to head to Maryland to look for our target bird, Harris's Sparrow. We arrived at Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland just before 11am. It was a rather cold gloomy day with afternoon snow in the forecast but we had big sunny smiles on our faces with anticipation of seeing the rare sparrow. A 20-minute walk on Anacostia River Trail took us to the spot where the Harris's Sparrow had been seen on and off for the past few days. The site had a lot of WHITE-THROATED SPARROWs and SONG SPARROWs which made it harder to find the one special sparrow. After all, all sparrows sort of look like, small and brown. While waiting for the sparrow, a rambunctious BELTED KINGFISHER by the river bank kept us entertained. An hour had passed and doubts started to creep in. Maybe the bird had left...? Then there it was, perched on a low branch right in front of me. I yelled out "I FOUND IT! I FOUND IT!". The HARRIS'S SPARROW was with a large flock of sparrows and we had enjoyed its company for good 30 minutes. Then the sky suddenly darkened and all sparrows flew under the bushes and it was dead silent. Right then snow started fall. We still had good amount of driving to do to get to our final destination so we reluctantly said good-bye to sparrows and started our drive.

Once we got to Virginia, most roads had not been salted yet and they were quite slippery. We saw several cars stopped roadside after losing control and going off the road. Finally, we arrived safely at our hotel in Winchester, Virginia, our base for the next two days.

FEBRUARY 18, 2018 Virginia is for bird lovers!

We were pleasantly surprised to find out that all the snow had already melted and the sun was shining brightly on us. It was a beautiful day and we had good feeling about seeing our next target, Eurasian Collared-Dove. We had seen them once in Florida back in 2008 but would be really nice to see them again. We drove to Lumber Mill Road in Rockingham, VA where they were supposed to be roosting. Well, we quickly ran into two problems: one, it was a country road lined with people's homes. Two, those damn dogs wouldn't stop barking. As soon as we got out of the car, three huge dogs from one of the houses started to bark non-stop. It was just too loud and made us look too suspicious so we decided to bird from the car and basically wait for the doves. Houses in the area seemed to be mostly occupied by Mennonite folks and they must have been quite weary of two strangers armed with binoculars and high powered camera snooping around. Right about then, doves started to call. We were certain the sound was coming from the back of the house with three barking dogs. There was no way to see the doves without transpassing the property. Sadly the best option for us was to abort our search mission.
On our way to see our next target, a female White-winged Scoter, at Silver Lake, we spotted a gorgeous EASTERN MEADOWLARK on the field. Silver Lake was more like a pond than a lake and it was incomprehensible to see a WHITE-WINGED SCOTER in a small pond like this one. Scoters are most always seen at open ocean. There were other very accidental characters in the lake such as a LONG-TAILED DUCK and LESSER SCAUPs hanging out with commonly seen water birds: MALLARDs, CANADA GEESE, NORTHERN SHOVELERs, and BUFFLEHEADs. At the Lake, we met a very nice local birder who told us a few good birding spots in the area. We then drove to another lake, Lake Shenandoah for more birding. Unfortunately, we didn't see any unusual birds there but nice walk around the lake yielded sightings of our regulars: NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDs, AMERICAN ROBINs, NORTHERN CARDINALs, DARK-EYED JUNCOs, MALLARDs, and CANADA GEESE. Although we missed our target, we had a great time birding Virginia for the first time. Their state slogan sure was spot-on: "Virginia is for bird lovers".☺

FEBRUARY 19, 2018

Temperature was supposed to hit above 70° today, unseasonably warm in February. We were going to visit a few hot spots nearby before heading back to Washington DC later today. Our first stop was lovely Abrams Creek Wetland Preserve in Winchester. Highlights of the visit included a sighting of a raucous CAROLINA WREN couple, and a handsome RED-SHOULDERED HAWK. We saw many familiar but exciting birds such as AMERICAN GOLDFINCHes, HOUSE FINCHes, BLUE JAYs, NORTHERN CARDINALs, SONG SPARROWs, DARK-EYED JUNCOs, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDs, and CANADA GEESE.

We made a quick stop at Lake Frederick but didn't see anyone besides a few people fishing. So we left the lake in a hurry and headed to the renowned Blandy Experimental Park / The State Arboretum of Virginia. Birding there was very good but what captured our hearts the most was sheer beauty of this park. Birders or non-birders alike, if you were to visit northern Virginia, this park is a must-stop. We spent a long time looking at beautiful and abundant EASTERN BLUEBIRDs. A Red-headed Woodpecker was sighted a day before but it seemed that we had missed it by one day. Other birds in the park were RED-SHOULDERED HAWKs, CAROLINA CHICKADEEs, RED-BELLIED WOODPECKERs, DOWNY WOODPECKERs, SONG SPARROWs, WHITE-THROATED SPARROWs, AMERICAN GOLDFINCHes, HOUSE FINCHes, DARK-EYED JUNCOs, and AMERICAN ROBINs.

FEBRUARY 20, 2018 the man who made it all possible

Sadly it is our last day of birding away from home. We started our day at breathtaking Kenilworth Aquatic Park in Washington DC where an American Pipit and a Grasshopper Sparrow had recently been spotted, little did we know we'd meet the man who made our trip at all possible. Unfortunately, we were unable to find our targets but were happy to be out strolling along ducks and sparrows (and even some turtles!) on this spectacular day. It was even hotter than yesterday with temperature soaring up to near 80°. As we were enjoying a view of beautiful CEDAR WAXWINGs, we met a park ranger and an elderly woman watching birds. The ranger told us that he was taking the woman to see the Harris's Sparrow and asked us if we would like to come along. Although we had seen it on the first day, we would love to see it again so we gladly took on their offer. We didn't realize that this park was actually connected via Anacostia River Trail to Bladensburg Park where we saw Harris's Sparrow on our first day. This time, we would be coming from the opposite direction. Those two could not have been nicer and we all enjoyed our walk together on the trail. We were greeted by a pair of gregarious PILEATED WOODPECKERs and a majestic fly-by BALD EAGLE. During my conversation with the ranger, I came to learn that he was the first one to report the sighting of the now infamous sparrow. You've got to be kidding me! I remember myself saying on the first day who in the heck would find this obscure sparrow. The Harris's Sparrow spot is pretty desolate off the main trail, probably get single digit visits in a year. On top of it, remember it took us over an hour of intense search to find it so it is certainly not an easy bird to spot. I thanked him for his outstanding discovery and told him that he was the reason we traveled to this part of the country. Ironically, we did not find the sparrow that day but we had a great time admiring always adorable Rub-crowned Kinglet.

While deciding our final stop of the trip, we were again faced with tough choices: Northern Shrike or Yellow-headed Blackbird. We only had time left for one visit before heading back to New York. Finally, we reached a consensus to go see a Yellow-headed Blackbird near Baltimore as we only saw it once in 2005 in Utah. We arrived at North Point State Park where, according to ebird, a Yellow-headed Blackbird had been seen regularly. It was probably the most crowded park amongst all the parks we had visited on this trip. There we began our usual waiting game. An hour had passed and still no sign of the bird. We kinda knew it wasn't around because it was supposed to hang out with very common Red-winged Blackbirds and we didn't see any of them either. So we said good-bye to birds of southern mid-Atlantic. We sure will be back soon. Last note, remember the Green-tailed Towhee we were considering going to see instead of Harris's Sparrow? The bird was said to have left the area and was never spotted again, ha!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dominican Republic Birding Trip 2017

While planning our next birding trip, I happened to learn about a small island nation of Dominican Republic with whopping 32 endemic birds and it's only three and a half hours plane ride away. Right then I was sold: Dominican Republic it was! We had gone to the neighboring island of Puerto Rico to bird the endemics in 2012 and it was one of the easiest and most comfortable birding trips to date. So we expected the trip to the Dominican Republic to be somewhat similar to the Puerto Rico trip, uncomplicated and pleasant, while featuring many more endemics. Well, we will find out if that would be the case....

NOVEMBER 16, 2017 uh-oh police trouble!?

Our flight left New York at 6:55pm and we arrived at Las Americas International Airport a little before midnight. It took us a while to find the rental car place as their counter inside the airport was closed and we were told to find their building outside in the parking lot. As we all know, the easiest task becomes much more complicated when we don't speak the language. It was not at all pleasant either to find out that we needed to pay about four times the amount of reserved price after adding mandatory insurance and other fees. After this ordeal with the rental car company, we finally got our Kia Rio and drove off to our first hotel in the town of Boca Chica about 10 minutes away. As I was driving, I saw a slow driving police car ahead. Not wanting to pass a police car, I drove behind them for about a minute. Then it looked like the police was pulling off to the side so I proceeded to pass them and that was when the police turned on the flashing lights. Oh great! I stopped the car and two police came to talk to us. With our very limited Spanish, we understood that they were escorting us to the hotel (perhaps out of kindness???) so we followed the police to the hotel. We thanked them and went on to check in but noticed that the police was still hanging around inside the hotel lobby. One of them told us that his wife was having a baby and he wanted to get beer to celebrate. Finally, the hotel clerk gave them water bottles and they left. We think they were trying to extort money (or beer) from us. Our trip in Dominican Republic certainly started off on the wrong foot.

NOVEMBER 17, 2017 hello endemics!

After our nice breakfast at the hotel, we were on the road en route to Hotel Paraíso Caño Hondo in Los Haitises National Park. We were going to the north western part of the island only to see critically endangered endemic raptor, Ridgway's Hawk, as it is the easiest location to see this amazing hawk. The hawk is one of the most endangered raptors in the world with only less than 300 individuals remaining. We drove on a nice smooth highway for about an hour then the road condition became deteriorated with many potholes until it became a bumpy dirt road. Well, 3-hour drive on rough roads would be well worth it if we could get a glimpse of Ridgway's Hawk. Finally, we arrived at the hotel and immediately made an arrangement to see the hawk with a guide tomorrow. We then spent the afternoon exploring the beautiful hotel grounds. Fittingly, the first bird we spotted was the Dominican Republic's national bird, PALMCHAT. It may not be the most beautiful but its energy and sociability certainly made up for its somewhat unappealing looks. Another such endemic bird we saw was a WHITE-NECKED CROW, extremely noisy but quite plain. We then saw a string of good-looking endemic species commonly observed throughout the island: HISPANIOLAN LIZARD-CUCKOO, BLACK-CROWNED PALM-TANAGERs, and HISPANIOLAN WOODPECKERs.

We also encountered familiar NORTHERN PARULAs wintering in the tropics along with an AMERICAN KESTREL perched on top of the tallest tree in search of his next meal. To top off our amazing day, I found my new favorite dish, arros con pollo Dominican style. Unlike ordinary arros con pollo, Dominican version is soupy and it was mucho deliciouso! Well, our fantastic day was just not yet over. At 7:30pm, we went out with a resident bird guide, Juan Carlos, to look for a highly elusive ASHY-FACED OWL, an island endemic. I honestly thought our chance of seeing this owl was about 10% or less. The guide too said finding the owl was quite difficult. 10 minutes into our walk, Juan spotted two owls flying in the dark then perched on a tree nearby us. Seriously!? Just when I thought this day could not get better, this highly sought-after owl showed up right in front of us. We spent a good amount of time admiring this beautiful night creature before it disappeared into the darkness. In 24 hours, we went from being hassled by corrupt police to being dazzled by breath-taking birds.

Day 1 endemic counter: 6/32

NOVEMBER 18, 2017 the king of the mountains!!!

We met Juan Carlos at 6:30am to kick start our big day to see the Ridgway's Hawk. We opened the wooden gate to Los Haitises National Park located at the back of our hotel and began our quest. First, we had to cross a vast muddy grassy field filled with grazing cows. Birding on this field was quite a challenge as we had to carefully choose our paths to avoid puddles hidden under the thick vegetation as well as huge cow dungs. As soon as we set our foot onto the field, we heard loud screeching sounds of a LIMPKIN and a flock of GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLEs. Right about then, my left foot sank into one of the muddy puddles. Walking in a wet shoe was horrible but it was still better than the alternative (step on you know what). We saw a pair of HISPANIOLAN WOODPECKERs, singing NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDs, beautiful HISPANIOLAN EMERALDs and numerous TURKEY VULTUREs circling above.

We left the field to enter the thick humid forest. While walking on a rugged unmarked trail, Juan warned us of poisonous plants surrounding all around. Finally, we got to an open field where the hawk had been most frequently seen. It was then time to play the waiting game. While waiting for the hawk, we kept ourselves busy by watching chatty YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITs, courtly GRAY KINGBIRDs and always noisy PALMCHATs.

Almost an hour had passed and we could see the panic on Juan's face. When we heard a loud screech in the sky, all of our faces lit up as we knew that the king of the mountains had arrived. Oh what a majestic sight it was! Standing silently, we watched the hawk in awe for a long time in the field.

Triumphantly, we left the field for a late breakfast at the hotel. With full stomach, we immediately went back to the park to grab more endemics, this time on our own. Without much effort, we spotted  two of the island's cutest residents right outside of the park gate: ANTILLEAN PICULETs and BROAD-BILLED TODYs, followed by the routine sightings of BANANAQUITs, CATTLE EGRETs and SMOOTH-BILLED ANIs.

Sadly, the time had come for us to say good-bye to the amazing Los Haitises National Park and start our long drive back to Santo Domingo. Driving through the busy town of El Valle, a man on a motor bike told us that we had a flat tire. Ugh, we pulled into a gas station to add air and we could clearly hear the leak. Courtesy of google translator, we got a location of the nearest tire shop from the gas station attendant and it was fixed in a jiffy for $2! We got to our hotel in Santo Domingo before dark. While in the capital, I had to try one of my favorite dish, Mofongo, for dinner. Perhaps we picked the wrong restaurant but my personal experience was that it wasn't nowhere near as good as the ones we had in Puerto Rico.
Day 2 endemic counter: 10/32

NOVEMBER 19, 2017 green oasis in Santo Domingo...

Today we were birding the renowned Dr. Rafael M. Moscoso National Botanical Garden in Santo Domingo. We got to the Garden a little before 7:30am. Immediately after entering the garden, we were struck by its beauty and cleanliness: it was meticulously maintained and absolutely spotless. Overhead, we noticed hundreds of ANTILLEAN PALM-SWIFTs circling in the sky. On the ground, there were two charming COMMON GROUND-DOVEs and a MOURNING DOVE amid hundreds of ever-present city-dwelling ROCK DOVEs. HISPANIOLAN WOODPECKERs and PALMCHATs were eating and chattering everywhere. It didn't take us long to spot our primary target, HISPANIOLAN PARAKEETs, on top of the tallest palm tree in the central plaza.

After spending fair amount of time checking out the birds at the central plaza, we proceeded to walk in the humid forest of Gran Canada trail. As we entered the forest, the deafening high-pitched songs of BANANAQUITs filled the air. The forest was packed with hundreds of familiar wintering wood-warblers: OVENBIRDs, NORTHERN PARULAs, AMERICAN REDSTARTs, and PRAIRIE WARBLERs. A NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD caught our attention while it engaged itself in some curious wing-spreading display. We also saw HISPANIOLAN LIZARD-CUCKOO quietly sitting on a branch alongside a pretty RED-LEGGED THRUSH.

It was then we saw  something we had not seen in Dominican Republic, three birders with big cameras! That is how we usually spot good birds in America so we knew there was something good ahead. We introduced ourselves to the first Dominican birders. As we had guessed, they were after the endangered WEST INDIAN WHISTLING DUCKs nesting in the river. Besides the ducks, we saw LEAST GREBEs, COMMON MOORHENs, GREEN HERONs, SNOWY EGRETs and LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSHes in the river. We then moved onto more open drier landscape where we saw the world's second smallest hummingbird, VERVAIN HUMINGBIRD, my god, was it tiny!

After spending over 5 hours at the garden, we were ready to head west to reach the heartland of endemic birding. Drive to Barahona where we will be staying overnight was long but comfortable with good straight highway all the way. We got to Hotel Caribe in Barahona before 4pm and decided to check out the water front across the street for shore birds. It didn't take too long for us to realize that this town really wasn't a popular international tourists' destination. Soon we were joined by a homeless man who followed us along so we figured we should head back to the hotel for the night. 
Day 3 endemic counter: 11/32

NOVEMBER 20, 2017 rough ride to Cachote

We signed up for a tour with Eco Tour Barahona to bird an area called Cachote mainly to see one very special bird, Eastern Chat-Tanager. Like Ridgway's Hawk, Eastern Chat-Tanager is a critically endangered endemic and has extremely limited range. Cachote is said to be the only place where the bird can be observed with relative ease. This tour company usually specializes in cultural tours but they agreed to give us a tour solely focused on birding. We were supposed to get picked up at 5am though there were two problems. One, the tour people weren't there. Two, the hotel door was locked and no one was around to let us out. About 20 minutes later, guys from Eco Tour finally showed up but we still had the other problem. Thankfully, our tour guide somehow got a hold of someone from the hotel and the hotel worker was able to let us out through the back door. We introduced ourselves to our guide, Mael, and the driver, Leon. Leon was a local Dominican and Mael was a Frenchman working in Dominican Republic. It was nice to have the English-speaking guide as Mael spoke both Spanish and English fluently. We all got into the huge 4x4 truck and began our adventure. As soon as we made a right turn onto a dirt road to start our climb to Cachote, I understood why the tour came with a designated driver. No word can describe the horrific condition of the road (if we can call that a road!). It was the WORST road we've ever been on and we had driven on many dirt roads. I would not and could not drive on the road even if I had a tank. After a long slow hair-raising drive, we got to a spot where Eastern Chat-Tanager could be seen. Mael heard the bird but could not locate it as the bird stayed in thick understory. By then, the rain was falling fairly steadily so we decided to wait in a car til it let up. After about 40 minutes, the rain began to ease off so we decided to walk up the trail leading up to the desolate visitor center used only by backpackers. It was still drizzling so the condition certainly was not ideal: Most birds tend to stay inactive during the rain. Odds were against us but we stayed positive and hopeful. Then Mael heard the tanager again and he was able to spot it in a thicket. Oh there it was, a beautiful EASTERN CHAT-TANAGER. We both had a good look of the bird for about 3 seconds and that was good enough for us. By the visitor center, we saw quite a few cute NARROW-BILLED TODYs buzzing around.

It was now time for lunch! Mael said that one of the coolers was lost during the transport. Mael and Leon thought that it was stolen when they were loading up all their gear but luckily for us, the lost cooler contained only utensils, paper trays and cups so our lunch stayed intact. Since we were utensil-less, Mael arranged for us to eat at local farmers' house. It was quite an experience to see how locals live, much more basic than I had imagined. We did not see many birds today but I got to feed and play with the cutest puppies. Most Dominicans I met owned two dogs or more for security plus some cats to scare off rats.

It was wishful thinking that going down the road would be any less intense than going up. Almost at the end of our descent, we made a final stop to look for more birds but it was pretty quiet all around. We did manage to find a hyper active HISPANIOLAN LIZARD-CUCKOO. Although we achieved our main goal of seeing the endemic tanager, the area wasn't as birdy as we had hoped. Before getting dropped off at the hotel at 3pm, we asked Mael to recommend some restaurants in Barahona. He said his favorite was a small sandwich shop called La Esquina de Fidel and he was right on. It became our favorite joint as well.

Day 4 endemic counter: 14/32

NOVEMBER 21, 2017 Kate and Villa Barrancolí

We were having a nice breakfast at the hotel when a charming well-dressed elderly man abruptly joined us at the table. Soon we realized that he was trying to convince us to hire him as a guide. He certainly did not take no for an answer so we just had to politely leave the room. While we were loading our luggage onto the car, the homeless man from the day before showed up from nowhere and started washing our car window. The hotel clerk came outside to confront the homeless man and they got into a heated argument. We drove off from the scene as quickly as we could. We were now off to the most anticipated part of Dominican endemic birding. Our plan for the day was to bird the famed Robo de Gato trail before driving to Villa Barrancolí run by arguably the best-known birder in the country, Kate Wallace. After an hour and half of pretty routine drive, we got to the small town of Puerto Escondido. We stopped by the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park visitor center in town to pay the entrance fee of $1 but we were told that they ran out of tickets so there was no fee. Finally we arrived at the V-intersection with a sign pointing both directions as Robo de Gato Trail.


Satisfied, we decided to head to Villa Barrancolí. Road getting there was very muddy with many large puddles but somehow we managed to make it to the lodge with our little Kia Rio. The ground keeper opened the gate for us and we finally met DR's most famous birder, Kate Wallace, a leading voice in conservation and eco-tourism in the country. We were quite star-struck as Kate is a mini celebrity in Dominican birding and she just couldn't have been nicer. Before dinner, we took a short walk on Robo de Gato trail and saw three flying HISPANIOLAN PARROTs. Over dinner and drinks, we had a great conversation with Kate on just about everything from birds to politics. We could have talked all night but we had a really big day tomorrow so it was time to say good-night.

Day 5 endemic counter: 17/32

NOVEMBER 22, 2017 we left our hearts in Zapotén...

Our alarm went off at 3:30am and it was time to get up and get ready. No, the time wasn't a typo, we had to get up at 3:30am to get picked up by our guide, Rafael, at 4:00am. It was absolutely necessary to leave this early if we were to have the best chance of seeing the highly elusive La Selle Thrush. While driving in town by the Avocado farm, we saw a lot of BURROWING OWLs flying around. About 30 minutes into our drive, it was still dark but somehow Rafael spotted a LEAST PAURAQUE sitting on a branch. Oh what a find! He put a spotlight on it and we had a pretty good view of this extremely hard-to-see nocturnal endemic. Shortly after that, the road became beyond rough just like it was in Cachote and it stayed that way all the up to our final destination, Zapotén. We got to the guard station at Zapotén around 6:15am before sunrise. Rafael parked the car and we started our walk up the road. Then he told us to stand silently and wait. I had done my homework so I knew exactly what we were waiting for. Before long, we saw a LA SELLE THRUSH crossing the road a few times in distance. Oh wow, this bird comes to this area before dawn like a clockwork every day. In fact, this corner is fittingly called 'La Selle Corner'. Satisfied with the breathtaking view of the thrush, we marched on up for high elevation species. Along the road, we spotted a few cute HISPANIOLAN PEWEEs but it was somewhat quiet.

Once the sun came out, the cloud forest came alive: the whole area was filled with birds. Every shrub every tree had some amazing birds. We were absolutely overjoyed and were utterly overwhelmed by the volume. We were definitely experiencing what I call "birders' high". We saw basically all of the highland endemics plus some in like a span of 10 minutes and they just kept coming. We saw HISPANIOLAN HIGHLAND TANAGERs, a WESTERN CHAT-TANAGER, GREEN-TAILED GROUND-TANAGERs, a HISPANIOLAN TROGON, a RUFOUS-THROATED SOLITAIRE, ANTILLEAN EUPHONIAs, HISPANIOLAN SPINDALISes, ANTILLEAN SISKINsHISPANIOLAN CROSSBILLs, GREATER ANTILLEAN ELAENIAs, a FLAT-BILLED VIREOGOLDEN SWALLOWs, NARROW-BILLED TODYsANTILLEAN MANGOs, and HISPANIOLAN EMERALDs. It was absolutely sensational. We went back to the guard house where we saw a handsome LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD and had a quick lunch before starting our long bumpy descent. I wish we could have stayed there much much much longer.

Near the end of our descent, Rafael spotted a sleeping NORTHERN POTOO. He must have a special vision or a third eye to find those impossible-to-see species. Shortly after, we spotted a highly sought-after BAY-BREASTED CUCKOO flew across the road. We stopped and tried to relocate the bird but it had already disappeared into the forest. Once back in town, we saw HISPANIOLAN ORIOLEs, AMERICAN KESTRELs, and SMOOTH-BILLED ANIs.

Rafael dropped us off at the lodge right around 3:00pm. We were still in a daze. What happened today at Zapotén was truly magical. Needless to say, our guide was just phenomenal. We did have some minor hiccups with the car that it wouldn't start up every time we stopped. In fact, Rafael had to once call for help as the car just didn't turn on. Eventually the engine started after banging it with a hammer a couple of times. Just between us, a devil insides of me secretly hoped the car would not start so we could stay in Zapotén longer. At the dinner, we were all smiles and told Kate everything about our extraordinary day.
Day 6 endemic counter: 29/32

NOVEMBER 23, 2017 striking gold in Robo de Gato

Today we were going to bird the Robo de Gato Trail again on our own in search of an endemic dove that had been slipping through our fingers. Kate had told us last night that she heard a second-hand report that a White-fronted Quail-Dove had been seen on the trail near the lodge. Before dawn, we went to the spot to wait for the dove but we didn't see a single living soul. Disappointed, we decided to walk the rest of the trail hoping to see something good. The trail wasn't as birdy as we would have liked but we managed to see some nice birds. We saw a nice array of familiar wood-warblers: BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLERs, PRAIRIE WARBLERs, BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLERs and LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSHes. It was very exciting to get a good look at HISPANIOLAN PARAKEETs as well as HISPANIOLAN PARROTs. As we were walking and chatting nonchalantly, we saw something fly up to a nearby low branch. I casually took a look and oh my god, there was a beautiful WHITE-FRONTED QUAIL-DOVE perched on a low branch. It was there for about 5 seconds til the nervous dove flew away further into the forest. We gave each other silent "high five"! In a nearby pond, we saw a lonely COMMON MOORHEN treading in the muddy water.

Satisfied with our sightings at Robo de Gato Trail, we decided to go back to the area around La Placa where we saw a group of Burrowing Owls yesterday. Unfortunately, owls were not there but we found some nice familiar faces. We saw a BLACK-CROWNED PALM-TANAGER eating his lunch while CAPE MAY WARBLERs and YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERs hopped from branch to branch looking for their share of bugs. A GRAY KINGBIRD sat on a twig looking like a royalty. YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITs and NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDs were singing their hearts out. Birding was never complete without seeing our cutest friend, a NARROW-BILLED TODY. HISPANIOLAN PEWEEs AMERICAN KESTRELs and SMOOTH-BILLED ANIs were always begging to have their photos taken. Another magnificent birding day at Puerto Escondido!

Time had come for us to say good-bye to this outstanding birding region. We started our late afternoon drive back to Barahona for an overnight stay. En route, we stopped by our favorite sandwich shop then headed back to Hotel Caribe again. This time we made sure to park the car in a gated lot in the back of the hotel.
Day 7 endemic counter: 30/32

NOVEMBER 24, 2017 pink flamingos save the day

While enjoying the late breakfast at 7am at the hotel, we spotted the man who tried to sell us his tour service so we finished up our meal in a hurry and were out of Barahona before 8am. Today, we were visiting Oviedo Lagoon in Jaragua National Park to check out some shore birds. Our drive south to the lagoon was accompanied by stunningly beautiful views of Dominican seaside. Once arriving at the lagoon, we stopped by the visitor center to pay our entrance fees but it took us almost 20 minutes to leave the building. The park ranger was terribly insistent on us taking rather expensive boat tour of the lagoon and absolutely did not take no for an answer. After politely declining the offer for the hundredth time, we left the center to walk to the pier to observe the lagoon and the ranger accompanied us. At the pier, we quickly spotted 3 marvelous GREATER FLAMINGOs but they were quite a distance away. Just as the ranger was telling us how close the boat could get us to the flamingos, three flamingos took off and flew closer and closer to us within arms reach. They made a U-turn overhead and went back to their original location. I suppose he lost his selling point at that point and left us alone at the pier.

Shortly after, we were joined by a much cuter sales person. A young boy no older than 7 said he could take us on a boat tour for much less. We said no thank you as gently as we could but he tagged us along anyways throughout our stay at the lagoon. Besides the flamingos, we saw MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDs, SNOWY EGRETs, GREAT BLUE HERONs and GREAT EGRETs.

We were now off to the wetlands by Cabo Rojo, said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Dominican Republic. Of course, our sole interest was seeing beautiful birds than beaches; besides, no one would be crazy enough to be unclothed anywhere in this part of Dominican Republic as there was a swarm of mosquitoes just about anywhere we looked. We were lucky to find more GREATER FLAMINGOs as well as other interesting waders such as CARIBBEAN COOTs, BLACK-NECKED STILTs, NORTHERN SHOVELERs, TRICOLORED HERONs, CATTLE EGRETs, and REDDISH ERGRETs in white morph. In the sky, there were BROWN PELICANs, ROYAL TERNs, and MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDs. On land, there were many good-looking GRAY KINGBIRDs.

After our action-packed day, we finally arrived at the small town of Pedernales, adjacent to Haitian border. We checked into charming Hotel Doña Chava, our base to explore the southern part of Sierra de Bahoruco National Park for the next 2 days. Shortly after checking in, our bird guide, Nicolas, and his lovely daughter, Nicole, met us at the hotel, to discuss our plans for tomorrow. During our meeting, Nicolas told us that he was going owling tonight with his clients and asked us if we wanted to come. YES!

Before tonight's excursion, we had some time to get dinner. We found a seafood restaurant (Restaurant Jalicar) nearby so we decided to give it a try. We sat down then ordered seafood and all was going well so far. It was when our meals came, the most bizarre thing happened. There were hundreds of mosquitoes swarming our dishes. They were literally diving into our food in frenzy and seemed to only be interested in our food at that point. A few minutes after we started eating, they all turned against us, one of the fiercest attacks we had seen. They were biting any exposed skin they could find (including faces). We ate as fast as we could and biting stopped when we finished eating. We had never seen such freakish behavior in mosquitoes. Well one thing for certain: we sure as heck were not coming back to this restaurant.

Nicole came to meet us at the hotel at 7pm then the three of us hopped onto Kia Rio to begin our night adventure, specifically to look for a Stygian Owl. Exactly as I heard, Alcoa Road leading all the way up to the visitor center was well paved with virtually no bumps. At the beginning of the road, we caught a nice sight of a BURROWING OWL hunting in the dark. We drove in complete darkness for about an hour til we found Nicolas and his two clients calling for the owl. We joined them and waited silently. Finding an owl requires a lot of patience and the effort often is not rewarded and tonight was no exception. We had waited for the owl at few different locations until about 10pm. Without any sign of the owl, we said good-night to Nicolas and the company who were camping at the visitor center. We dropped Nicole off at her house and were back at the hotel around 11pm.

Day 8 endemic counter: 30/32

NOVEMBER 25, 2017 squatters in paradise

We went to pick up Nicole at 6am at her house on our way to the visitor center to meet her father and the company. While driving up the mountain road, we saw Helmeted Guineafowls but we knew they were domesticated birds because we saw them with chickens. At first, it seemed odd to find livestock everywhere inside the National Park but we soon realized that there were countless squatters living there illegally either to farm or cut down/burn trees to make charcoal. Clearly, uncontrolled human presence would be devastating to Park's natural resources and hopefully, Dominican government can find a suitable solution to this predicament. When we arrived at the visitor center, we could hear the loud cawing of PALM CROWs, endemic No. 31! We spent the rest of the day exploring the park. Nicolas had a spot for each endemic bird but unfortunately, birds weren't as cooperative as we had hoped. We felt that the southern part of Sierra de Bahoruco was nowhere near birdy as the northern peak of Zapotén. That was not to say we didn't see any birds. In fact, we saw thousands of familiar North American neotropical migrants as PINE WARBLERs and YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERs filled the area but seeing specialized highland endemics was rare and difficult. The highlights of today were seeing a beautiful female ANTILLEAN EUPHONIA and a handsome HISPANIOLAN SPIDALIS. On our way back, we encountered a nice flock of SCALY-NAPED PIGEONs. Rain started to fall in the late afternoon so we decided to call it a day. When we dropped off Nicole, she invited us to her home and we met her lovely mother and cute little brother. We both agreed that the best part of birding with Nicolas was meeting Nicole who accompanied us everywhere as a translator to help her father. She was smart, sweet, funny, polite, warm, considerate, caring, driven, genuine, open-minded, and the list goes on. At such young age, she was starting her own tour company and we wish her all the best

Usually, meal time is something we look forward to but not in Pedernales. We were still deeply traumatized by what happened last night at the dinner. We picked the first decent looking place and bravely marched in. The owner told us four entrées and we ordered chicken and fish, so far so good. Then out of nowhere, about nine or so very young boys came to our table and offered to wash our car parked right outside. We politely declined but we knew by now no one in this country took our no for an answer so they proceeded to wash our car. Occasionally, the owner lady came out to yell at the kids to scram then they dispersed. Once she went back to the kitchen, they all came back immediately. The scene was entertaining and distracting at the same time. In any case, our another attempt for a quiet peaceful meal failed miserably.
Day 9 endemic counter: 31/32

NOVEMBER 26, 2017 desperately seeking nightjar

Today, we were going to bird Alcoa Road on our own. We had one goal in mind: to find our last endemic, Hispaniolan Nightjar. As the name suggests, this bird is strictly nocturnal which made our quest highly challenging. We probably had a better chance of seeing this species in Puerto Escondido where we saw Least Pauraque but it was too late for that. We arrived at the lower part of Alcoa Road before dawn. It was still dark and we saw quite a few night birds flying all around us. However, there was no way for us to accurately identify flying birds in darkness with our inexperienced eyes unless they either vocalize or perch somewhere we could observe. Soon the sun came up and we had to abandon our search. On our way up to the visitor center in Hoyo de Pelempito, we saw a nice-looking STOLID FLYCATCHER and a flock of GOLDEN SWALLOWs. When we reached the center, Nicolas and his guests were packing up to leave the mountain. For whatever reason, a large flock of PALM CROWs came down to eat right by the visitor center and oh boy were they loud. Once crows left, Nicolas gave us a nice parting gift: he heard and spotted a gorgeous male ANTILLEAN SISKIN. We said good-byes to Nicolas and his two companions and finally we were truly alone. We revisited all the birding locations from yesterday but it was quiet. Last tip we got from Nicolas was to look for Hispaniolan Crossbills by the visitor center around 1pm so we came back and waited. I guess we were pretty tired going into our 10th straight birding day. Noel fell asleep on a bench and my eye lids were just about to close. Right then, I saw something land on a low branch a few feet away. Well, it wasn't a crossbill but a beautiful SHARP-SHINNED HAWK. It sat there for a long time and we thoroughly enjoyed its company. We then took a long hike into higher elevation and finally encountered a small flock of highland endemics including a GREEN-TAILED GROUND-TANAGER and a WESTERN TANAGER. It was almost late afternoon so we started our descent back to town.

Oh no, it was dinner time again and we were faced with two tough options: deal with ferocious man-eating mosquitoes or face the tenacious young hustlers. So we opted for the third option: takeout. Luckily, we found a casual fried chicken joint in town. First time in Pedernales, we ate our dinner in peace.
Day 10 endemic counter: 31/32

NOVEMBER 27, 2017 last hurrah

It was our last morning in Sierra de Bahoruco National Park before our 6-hour drive back to Santo Domingo in the afternoon. That meant it was our last chance to get to the magic number, 32. We got to the same spot before 6am and we saw even more flying night creatures than yesterday but we ran into the same problem: who are those guys!? We sat silently in the car helplessly watching them fly by, desperately hoping one would sing for us or sit close to us. Well, it seemed that our luck had finally run out. Our hearts sunk when we saw the sun rising in the horizon. Despite our failure to complete the endemic list, we kept our chins up and decided to enjoy our last birding day in this magnificent park. We wandered around the area where we had run into the mixed flock yesterday but it was very quiet except for the PALM CROWs cawing at us. Unfortunately we were running out of time and had time only for one more stop. We stopped at where we saw a beautiful female Antillean Euphonia. Then Noel spotted a stunning HISPANIOLAN TROGON sitting pretty right above us. Just underneath the trogon, an ever-so-charming NARROW-BILLED TODY was hopping from branch to branch. Right about then, we saw a warbler attack a HISPANIOLAN SPINDALIS across the road. Just another splendid day in the Dominican Republic.

Drive back to Santo Domingo was long and uneventful. We got to the capital right around the evening commute hour. Traffic in Santo Domingo, we felt, was far worse than traffic in New York City. We certainly won't miss driving in D.R.
Day 11 endemic counter: 31/32

NOVEMBER 28, 2017 so long, farewell, Dominican Republic...

Our flight was departing at 2:45pm, leaving us a few precious hours to bird in the capital for the last time. There was no better place than the National Botanical Garden where we could see plethora of DR endemics in relatively short amount of time. We got to the garden before dawn then spent a fair amount of time admiring amazing endemics one last time in the central plaza such as PALMCHATs, HISPANIOLAN WOODPECKERs, HISPANIOLAN PARAKEETs, and GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLEs. Our quick walk in Gran Canada Trail produced good sightings of RED-LEGGED THRUSHes, COMMON MOORHENs and a PURPLE GALLINULE. On our way out, we saw a cute VERVAIN HUMMINGBIRD taking a nap on a branch.

Sadly, the time had come for us to really say good-bye to the beautiful birds of DR and we began our drive to the airport. We had used Garmin GPS throughout this trip and it worked pretty well except in Pedernales so we set our GPS to head to Las Americas International Airport. When we were on the highway, we saw a sign for the airport although the GPS indicated another route. We made a split second decision to follow the sign and the nightmare began. We were thrown into the streets of fiercely crowded city of Santo Domingo. Streets were packed with people, food carts, motor bikes, cars and buses and, listen to this, there was no stop sign nor traffic lights. So at every intersection, whoever pushed most usually got to go. It was pure chaos. Just imagine driving in the middle of Times Square without any traffic lights! Miraculously, we made it out to the airport alive and without killing anyone.

Traveling in the Dominican Republic was a challenge at times but the island's natural beauty and marvelous endemics made it all worthwhile. We came so close to the perfect score (31 out of 32) but perhaps it was for a reason we missed one. For all we knew, we may be back in Dominican Republic some day looking for the mythical nightjar, the one that got away...