Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bulletin 213 - Dominican Republic #5 - water birds their national bird, colorful snail

I thought I would provide  the next chapter in the history of Hispaniola. In the previous discussion, the late 1600's saw France take over the western third of the island as Saint Domingue (now Haiti). They established sugar cane plantations based on slave labor and Saint Domingue soon became the 'Pearl of the Caribbean' as the richest colony. By the late 1700s, Saint Domingue had a slave population of 500,000 and the whites numbered only 32,000. The French Revolution in 1789 was caused in part by the bankruptcy of the country following the Seven Years War against Britain and then France's aid to the colonies during the American Revolution. Inspired by the French Revolution and the declaration of the rights of man that men are all equal, a major slave rebellion in 1791 broke out in Saint Domingue.

In 1794, France abolished slavery at home and in all the colonies. The next year Spain ceded the eastern part of the island to France, and the black rebels under Toussaint L'ouverture claimed the whole island. Back in France, Napoleon seized power in 1799, and didn't want the richest colony under the leadership of blacks. He reimposed slavery in the sugar cane growing colonies in 1802 and sent an army of 20,000 to take back control of Saint Domingue. It turned into a disaster as half the army died of yellow fever, and the blacks decisively routed the French in 1803, and declared independence as Haiti on Jan 1, 1804.

So with the loss of the revenue from Saint Domingue, Napoleon was short of cash and this led to the Louisiana purchase, when he sold most of central North America to the USA for a pittance. President Jefferson had wanted to get control of New Orleans as it was the most important port in the south. He was willing to pay $10,000,000 for the city, but suddenly Napolean offered the whole thing for $15,000,000. and the US wisely accepted.

After losing Saint Domingue in 1804, the French retained control of the eastern 2/3 of the island, but in 1809, gave it back to Spain. Spain tried to re-establish slavery there, but also, sent raiding parties to Haiti to capture blacks and re-enslave them. Haiti's president in 1822 was afraid that France might once again attack Haiti from the eastern side and reimpose slavery. So he invaded the Spanish eastern part and took control and incorporated the whole island into Haiti. For the next 22 years, the Dominicans were under Haitian control which they called the 'Haitian Occupation'.  The Spanish ruling class resented the occupation and in the 1830s launched resistance and guerilla attacks on the Haitian army. Haiti retreated in 1844 and the Dominican Republic became independent.

I found it strange that there were few gulls and terns on the trip. Apparently, there is little food in the tropical oceans compared to along the mainland, that large numbers just cannot survive. I did see 1 Royal Tern and several Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis). This one was flying outside my hotel room.

Brown Pelican
Shorebirds were another rarity on the trip. They get many migrants passing through in spring and fall, but few stay. Here is our familiar Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). He was the only shorebird I saw the whole week. He is IDed by the dark spotted wings and white eye ring.

Solitary Sandpiper

A lifer for me was the Caribbean Coot (Fulica caribea). It is very similar to the American Coot, but the white shield extends to the crown of the head. Notice in the photo that it extends to a point vertically above the eye. In the American Coot, it ends on the forehead about even with the eye horizontally. The American Coot also has a red spot on the top of the white shield, which the Caribbean lacks. It is listed as a threatened species. Its range is the Caribbean islands and the coast of Venezuela.

Caribbean Coot

The Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is also present in the Caribbean Islands, but is a different subspecies form the mainland.

Common Gallinule

A nice find was the Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus). I had photographed this bird once before in Texas. We found a pair with 2 chicks in a pond in the Botanical Gardens in the capital. Again, it is a different subspecies form the mainland. This small (9") gray bird is IDed by the bright yellow eye. Here is an adult with the nest mound behind.

Least Grebe
As you have probably seen on nature TV shows, sometimes the grebe babies will ride on their parents back. Well I was fortunate enough that one of the babies popped up onto the back of this bird.

Least Grebe with baby

The West Indian Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna arborea) is a typical long necked duck of the dendrocygna genus. This endangered species has a range from the Bahamas to Antigua. It is brown with white spots on the flanks. This was another lifer for me.

West Indian Whistling-Duck
They stand very erect on land. Here is a group of 7.

West Indian Whistling-Ducks

I saw several other duck species including Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teal. Several waders were seen also but not photographed including Roseate Spoonbill, Great Blue Heron, Cattle Egret etc.

The national bird of the Dominican Republic is the Palmchat (Dulus dominicus). This bird is the only bird in its family, the dulidae. It has some unusual habits for a songbird. They build large communal nests in Royal Palm trees, but sometimes will use electrical towers like the Monk Parakeet nests we see in the USA. It is an 8" brown backed bird with streaked breast, yellow bill and red eye. Sometimes the rare Ridgway's Hawk will build their nests on top of a large Palmchat nest, and neither bird seems to bother the other! The sexes are similar.

Here is a close-up.


And here is a typical location atop a Royal Palm tree.

I also found this colorful land snail on a tree. I have never seen a snail previously with colored rings around it. The scientific name is Liguus virginus. It is endemic to Hispaniola, but there are 4 others of the same genus, 3 endemic in Cuba and the last is found in both south Florida and Cuba. Unfortunately, they are at risk just because of their beauty as they are collected and/or used for jewelry.

Hispaniola Land Snail
Liguus virginus

Chocolate (Theobroma cacao) was another new world product that was brought back to Europe by the Spanish. The first record was Columbus encountering cacao beans on his fourth voyage on August 15, 1502. The natives had sacks of 'beans' which they used for trade. His son described them valuing them highly, as if they dropped a single bean, they would stop and retrieve it. Columbus took some back, but they didn't make any impact in Spain.

Cortes encountered chocolate as a bitter frothy drink in Montezuma's court in 1519. The king drank chocolate from cups made of pure gold. Now, the Spanish knew what to do with the beans and it quickly became a court favorite, especially after they added sugar or honey to counteract the natural bitterness. Over the next hundred years, chocolate spread throughout Europe.

This was my first trip to see a cacao tree. The pods are yellowish when ripe and heavy at 8" in length. The tree is 10-25 feet tall, and the heavy pods grow from the trunk and large branches rather than at the tips on the branches.

Here is a tiny flower bud growing from the trunk.

Flower bud of cacao tree

And here is a pod full of wonderful cocoa beans that give us Snickers.

Pod of cacao tree

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2015 David McDonald

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