I have been in the Dominican Republic for a month and will be here for at least two more. It has been fantastic to live and work in a foreign country. I've learned a lot--about tropical ecology, the history of Hispaniola, and the Spanish language. And the birds! I could tell you all about the exotic lifers, like this Palmchat (a monotypic family!):
Palmchat (Dulus dominicus)
But instead, I'll bore you with photos of a common Neotropical migrant. Redstarts are ubiquitous through much of eastern North America. I've seen thousands. But, I've never seen a redstart in February (unless you want to count a handful of wayward California winterers).
Redstarts are hyper
Redstarts, like many other insectivorous species from the North Woods, retire to Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America for the cold months. Different species have different distributions; the Black-throated Green Warbler, for example, is abundant in Mexico and northern Central America but much less common in the Antilles. Redstarts are abundant in Central America (I saw lots in the Yucatan), but here in the Caribbean they seem to be even more numerous.
This particular individual (which I dubbed Chewy for the redstart's sweet chew call note) defends a wintering territory that includes the backyard of our field house. It appears around 3PM every afternoon to forage in the brush pile at the base of our satellite dish.
I must admit that it is strange to feel more enamored with redstart than with the endemics (Narrow-billed Tody! Hispaniolan Oriole!) Perhaps it is because these warblers undertake epic journeys of thousands of miles to winter here, while the Palmchats just sit on top of palm spikes their entire lives.
Or maybe it reflects my background, bias, and sentiments as a temperate birder. I have lots of memories with redstarts. It's almost as if Chewy were my childhood friend--as if a bit of fluff could be a friend.
Whatever the reason, I've enjoyed seeing Chewy and other familiar warblers on their wintering grounds. They have traded spruce for cecropia, snow for sunshine. As have I.
Somewhere, down in that valley, Cow Urine Creek joins Rio Yaque del Norte
I squint with my ears, I can hear Cow Urine Creek whispering downhill. It is a
small creek, a foot or two across, inches deep. I don’t know its actual name—or
if it even has a name. Probably not. I have dubbed it Cow Urine Creek for the
local prevalence of cattle, which likely adulterates the stream’s purity.
my spot, this tree I’m sitting in. A bulge in the horizontal trunk forms the
ideal seat, and a brawny vertical limb is a convenient back rest. I felt a
strong sense of fittingness when I reclined here for the first time. This is my spot, I thought. And I reached for my knife.
is not something I normally do. Carving in bark is frowned upon for people who
claim to be environmentally literate. Global environmental crises such as
climate change and extinction are overwhelming and make me feel powerless; I
could, however, refrain from the simple act of mutilating a tree. Nevertheless,
I carved NAG 2016 in the trunk. Marking my spot. I felt no guilt.
as I was repositioning myself, my knife fell from my pocket. I heard it bounce
in the leaf litter. I cursed softly, then reached for my journal—but my pen
also fell. There was nothing to do but to descend from my eyrie and search.
pen I found within a moment. The knife was another story. My anxiety mounted as
one minute stretched to five to ten. The vegetation was thick. And it was a
nice knife. The guilt brewed. Sweaty and bur-stuck and ant-stung, I realized
that this was perhaps my just deserve; carve the tree, sin against it, and lose
your blade privilege. But it was a nice knife. I did not want to lose it. So, I
returned to my house to fetch a machete to shave the concealing thatch of grass
Island birds are notoriously sensitive to human modifications. Some of Hispaniola's endemics have declined precipitously and are now extremely rare; others, like this Hispaniolan Pewee, remain common (and this one is even using a man-made perch!)
hacked and swore and sweated. Expanding my radius of destruction, I mercilessly
cut any petiole or liana that could harbor my lost knife. As the machete sang,
I acknowledged the irony of feeling guilt over carving one tree and then
mindlessly decapitating hundreds of plants to find the murder weapon. A second
guilt-wave rolled in, and I began to regret my actions.
hour later I found it half-submerged in the lower tier of litter. My
destructive radius had inflated to ten feet; my handiwork rivaled the
capability of a John Deere riding mower. I regarded the withered leaves and
severed stems and shrugged. Then I stuck the machete in my belt and scrambled
up to my lofty office.
gazed at my blocky, weeping initials and contemplated environmental
degradation. This microcosm of clear-cutting rewound the successional clock a
few years for a bite-size chunk of riparian forest. My small action operates
within the context of this hillside, this valley, the entirety of Hispaniola.
All of these scales have undergone significant human modification. It is far
from a pristine ecosystem—but let’s be honest: do pristine ecosystems exist?
(I’m skeptical.) But, despite man’s heavy influence here, this hillside is an ecosystem. Asthmatic Bananaquits
cavort amidst an impressive assemblage of epiphytic orchids and bromeliads,
crabs lurk in the riffles of Cow Urine Creek despite the dubious water quality,
and Zebra Longwings flutter in and out of the dappled shadows.
Bananaquits, common in the presence of humans. Its Spanish name is Ciguita
Común, which means "Common Little Bird."
pondered my guilt. Why did I balk at cutting a vine but board the plane to
arrive here without a second thought? The withered vine is more personal and
tangible than the emissions I contributed to with my travels. More
confrontational, even—“You cut this.
It is dead.”
must learn to face our modifications to the natural world, both the tangible
and nebulous. And it is important to take this responsibility with hope; the
depressing and damning messages that are all too common spawn unproductive
guilt. Indeed, my supervisor at the Cincinnati Nature Center advised against
discussing invasive species, fearing that it would discourage our guests from
further engagement with nature.
Pale Cracker, an eccentric butterfly with a great name. They are common at Cow Urine Creek.
you had not already deduced from my story, I’m struggling to define my place
and responsibility in this human-changed world. I love nature and lament
extinction, habitat loss, and people’s disconnection from their surrounding
ecosystems. I would like to make conservation a priority in my life—and
conservation fundamentally requires educating and inspiring others. But I fear
being branded a hypocrite for driving a car, eating industrial corn, and cutting
my initials into tree bark.
would like to learn better ways to live sustainably and promote positive
education about human impacts on Earth. Let me know if you have any ideas. You
can find me in the tree by Cow Urine Creek.
across my consciousness came the raucous cries of parakeets in the trees along
the river. It was precisely at that moment that I fully realized for the first
time that we were really in Mexico.” Wild
America Chapter 18, “South of the Border”
are obsessed with the tropics. Dazzling tanagers, bizarre antbirds, and a
confusing array of olive/yellow flycatchers inspire the mind of the birder who
has exhausted their supply of new North American birds. Peruse the archives of
any serious birdblog, and you’ll eventually hit a multi-post, breathless, and
generally uninteresting-except-for-the-photos account of a trip to Somewhere
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Felipe Carillo Puerto
wanted to bird south of the border for as long as I can remember; this dream’s
conception I know not. Perhaps it was my young exposure to The Life of Birds, narrated by the ever-classy David Attenborough.
Later, when I was perhaps twelve, I swooned over the Mexico chapter of Wild America. Fisher and Peterson, those
two great gentlemen naturalists, wrote of guzzling Coca-Cola while chasing
tropical butterflies and marveling over dozens of new bird species.
could do nothing but wait. My family was not the type to take ziplining
vacations in Costa Rica. In high school, I switched to Spanish from German for the
express purpose of traveling Latin America. Via blogs and Facebook I watched my
peers venture to the tropics for the first time and felt no small amount of
Spider Monkey, Calakmul
finally made my first trip. For the past couple years, my friend Joel Betts and
I have periodically dreamed about traveling together to Latin America. Joel
wouldn’t really describe himself as a birder, but he’s a biologist with strong
interests in tropical ecosystems. I gave him my battered Sibley guide a couple
years ago, and he recently acquired his own binoculars, so I would say that he
is well along the way to becoming an avian addict.
than bore you with a day-by-day account listing each bird we found at each
antswarm, I’ll share ten lessons I learned from my first expedition to the
tropics. And photos, of course, since that’s probably all you will look at
Pale-billed Woodpecker, Calakmul
are hard to see. Now, imagine that you are standing on a dirt road through a
tropical forest, peering into an impenetrable wall of vines, trying to spot that
something rustling in the shadows. Now—imagine
that this unseen bird sings—a beautiful cascading whistle, a song that is surely diagnostic…but, you don’t know
vocalizations, so you’ll never know what it is. Bummer dude.
was me in Mexico. I knew it was important to study up on vocalizations before
the trip. And I did—a little. But it would be well worth spending hours on
Xeno-Canto ahead of time. That way, you can say, “Hey! That was a Stub-tailed
Spadebill! Let’s find it!” instead of “Hmm, don’t know that one either…it
sounds interesting though…”
Mottled Owls, Calakmul
scope and tripod, wonderful innovations. Scopes mock distance and dismiss
doubt—and, perhaps best of all, transform mediocre views into great ones.
Foolishly I left my scope standing lonely in my bedroom in an effort to lighten
regretted it. Several taxonomic groups—pigeons and parrots, especially—killed
us. Accoutered only with binoculars, it’s hard to identify a Scaly Pigeon when
it’s sitting on a snag a quarter-mile away. And, heck—a Keel-billed Toucan is unmistakable,
but imagine a view of one at 45x at 200 feet.
View from Estructura II, Calakmul
don’t have to spend lots of money!
is a luxury and costs money—and quite a bit of it! But, fortunately, travel is
cheaper if one foregoes the dine-on-the-beach resorts. Indeed, food and accommodation
is much cheaper in Mexico than in the States. Joel and I partook of few
luxuries and spent less than $900 on the trip (including airfare).
Summer Tanager, Isla Cozumel
you wear glasses, get Lasik.
humid and rainy. Those flycatchers of varying shades of olive and yellow will
coalesce even more as your glasses smudge. Camping doesn’t help, either…
Eye-ringed Flatbill, Felipe Carillo Puerto
started taking Spanish in high school. In college, I studied in Spain and even
freakin’ graduated with a B.A. in Spanish. I still felt lost a lot of the time.
The more Spanish you know, the better. It will help you decipher road signs,
ask locals about birding locations, and help you understand why those policemen
with automatic rifles are rifling through your trunk…
Black-headed Trogon, Felipe Carillo Puerto
take pictures and enter eBird lists. But keep a journal, too. Write down the
ridiculous things your travel buddy says. You’ll thank yourself.
careful what you eat and drink…but not too careful!
and I are both strong-stomached, so we dined in a more cavalier fashion than is
perhaps advisable. But don’t be afraid patronize hole-in-the-wall restaurants
or street vendors, as long as everything looks fresh! Our only dietary
indiscretion occurred when we ate some long-expired canned vegetables from a sleepy
Barred Forest-Falcon, Calakmul
water is not safe. Drink bottled water or bottled drinks. (Following in the footsteps
of Peterson and Fisher, we enjoyed many a Coca-Cola). For water, we eventually
secured a 5-gallon garrafon, which,
once empty, can be exchanged for a full at any convenience store for a couple
Lesser Roadrunner, Rio Lagartos
in America, I am accustomed to paying a set price for goods or services. Want a
latte? $3.99, no questions asked. But, in Mexico, the guy selling avocados on
the side of the road wants to maximize his profits, so he’ll tell some gringos
that three avocados cost 50 pesos when they could be bought for half the price
Royal Tern, Rio Lagartos
forget about Neotropical migrants.
got a dollar for every Magnolia Warbler I saw in Mexico, I would have been able
to fully fund the trip without dipping into my savings. At times, it felt like
we were birding back in Michigan: “Joel! There’s a Northern Parula! Next to the
Black-throated Green—whoops, it dropped down near the redstart—oh! Just heard a
Great Crested Flycatcher!”
Common Black-Hawk, Rio Lagartos
was super cool to see these old friends on their winter haunts—and fun to
wonder if some of those warblers were the same individuals that we’d seen in
migration or on their breeding grounds up North. If you’re feeling a bit rusty
on your warblers, be sure to study!
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (and sea turtle), Las Colorados
a good attitude.
in the jungle, a van, and gathered around it, a gaggle of white people! “Must
be birders…tour group I bet,” I said. Joel, blissfully unaware of the dark side
of birding culture, eagerly pulled off to the side of the road so we could
engage them in conversation. I winced, knowing that the exchange would be awkward
anything good?” I hailed.
chorus of unenthusiastic hellos. “Well, ah, it’s been really slow, actually,”
said the leader. “A Rose-throated Tanager down the road. Couple Yucatan
Flycatchers. But slow.”
bummer,” I responded. “We’ve pretty much just had the usuals, too.”
waited alongside them for a few awkward minutes while they tried to call in a
Green-backed Sparrow. Then they left.
they were grumpy!” Joel said.
man, gotta keep up that cool birder façade,” I said.
usuals?!” he exclaimed. “We’ve seen dozens of new birds today.”
play the game too...but yeah, you’re right.”
any birding trip, but especially your first foray to the tropics, enjoy the
birds you see! Don’t fret over the Violaceous Trogon that you missed. You’ll
never see every single species in a week.