Monday, December 22, 2014

Bulletin 210 - Dominican Republic #3 - Vireo, Thrushes and Crows

One of the major problems the birds are facing is loss of habitat. Deforestation is a problem everywhere, but in Haiti, it is an ecological disaster.

The contrast between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the same island, is stark. They both have about the same population of 10,000,000, but the Dominican Republic has the highest GDP in the Caribbean or Central America at $93 billion or about $11,000 per person. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas with a GDP of $12.4 billion and per capita of $1,600. In the Dominican Republic, propane or electricity are used for cooking. However, Haiti still uses wood and charcoal. Because of that, the forests have been decimated. In the 1920s, 60% of Haiti was forested. By 2002, it was less than 2%. The Dominican Republic has set aside large areas for national parks in the mountains and in fact, the forest cover has modestly increased on the last few decades to about 40%.

Almost all the birds I saw on the trip were in the mountains, so Haiti will no longer be available to them as a wintering ground or for the endemic birds. There is no border between the countries, so Haitians are now going into the forests in Dominican Republic and cutting the trees to make charcoal as a cooking fuel. Some areas along the border are being decimated on the Dominican side, even in the national parks. The Dominican government seems powerless to stop it. One of the areas we birded was right along the border and we could hear the people chopping the trees with machetes. They cut the hard wood to make charcoal and use some pines as fuel to dry out the hardwood, so in large areas, one would just see barren hills with a few scattered pines.

Immediately behind me in the picture was dense forest on the Dominican side of the border. Even this photo looks better than it actually is, as this was the rainy season and some grass has sprung up. In the dry season, it is just rock, where once trees and topsoil existed.

Deforestation in Haiti

The Flat-billed Vireo (Vireo nanus) is a Hispaniola endemic bird. It is similar to the White-eyed Vireo on North America, but paler. It has the white spectacles and 2 wing bars. The sexes are similar.

Flat-billed Vireo

Four species of thrushes were photographed, 1 endemic, 2 Caribbean endemics and 1 wintering from New England. The Hispaniola endemic is the endangered La Selle Thrush (Turdus swalesi). It is found in only 3 small mountainous forest areas on the island. The main problem is habitat loss due to deforestation on Haiti. It is very similar to the American Robin, but has a gray breast and white midline streak on the belly. The sexes are similar. In the mountains where we found it in a National Park, there is a big sign showing the bird and this is the place to observe it. I love the Spanish name 'Zorzal de la Selle'.  We had 2 fly into a fruiting tree directly overhead. The sexes are similar.

La Selle Thrush

And a moment later, another photo.

La Selle Thrush

The second thrush was the same genus. The Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) is perhaps the Caribbean counterpart of the American Robin as it is found on lawns, gardens and open areas. It is a resident in the Bahamas, Cuba, Cayman Islands, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Then it skips several islands and appears in Dominica. Formerly it was also found on some islands off Honduras. I always find these distributions interesting as why it isn't found between Puerto Rico and Dominica. It skips Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe and Montserrat. Interestingly, the subspecies on Dominica has orange feet and bill rather than red. Maybe it will be split??
I saw the bird on Puerto Rico last year so it wasn't a lifer. It is gray with a red bill and legs.

Red-legged Thrush

The third was the Rufous-throated Solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis). This genus is found only in the New World and Hawaii. In general, myadestes thrushes are slender compared to the plumper turdus genus. This bird is found in Jamaica, Hispaniola, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia and St. Vincent, each with their own subspecies. It is grayish with red throat and undertail. The sexes are similar.

Rufous-throated Solitaire - adult
The last thrush was another exciting bird to find. It is the Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli). This North American bird was a lifer for me. It breeds on mountains in the northeast above 3000 feet elevation. Its range is Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, southern Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It is essentially identical to the Gray-cheeked Thrush and only was split in 1998. It is best separated by voice, and as usually the birds are silent in migration, most birders have to make the trip to New England in the spring to see this bird. However, 90-95% of the Bicknell's winter on Hispaniola and they do sing, so I was able to find and photo the bird. It is a small brown thrush with spotted breast and no eye-ring.

Bicknell's Thrush
Crows, jays and magpies make up the corvidae family. These were another interesting geographical distribution for me. There are 5 endemic species of crow in the Caribbean, but no jays. Why do some birds in a family, but not others occur? Both crows and jays are in Florida, and it is less than 100 miles to Cuba and the Bahamas, but the crows made it and the jays didn't or at least never survived and populated the islands. The 5 species of crow are just on the largest islands, 2 each on Cuba and Hispaniola and 1 on Jamaica.

The Hispaniolan Palm Crow (Corvus palmarum) is a smallish (17") all black crow closely related to the Fish Crow in Florida. We saw a flock of about 20. He is nothing special to look at, but he was a lifer.

Hispaniolan Palm Crow

The other is the White-necked Crow (Corvus leucognaphalus). He is larger (20") and found in large flocks,  despite being listed as threatened. The white feathers on the nape of the neck are only seen during display. However, unusal for a crow, he has a bright red eye.

White-necked Crow

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

Lisa Kelly-McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2014 David McDonald

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