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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Jardin Botanico Nacional - Dominican Republic

“Cincuenta pesos!” “Quanto?” “Cincuenta pesos!” As she displays a 50 peso note for me. “Ahh, Sie! OK!” She tears off an end of the ticket as my receipt to which I present to the gate attendant. He stops me and asks, “Tienes una camara?” As he points to my bag. “Yes, I have a camera.” I begin to turn around to show him my backpack then realize the purpose of his request. I am not in the mood to go thru the hassle so I quickly raise my

I-phone before him and say, “Camera!” I know there probably is an additional fee for taking pictures but I just was not up for the formalities, so I played dumb and persisted that my phone was going to be taking the pictures today. Eventually he tired of my ignorance/language issue and set me on my way.

Upon entering the grounds, I realized I would not be able to pull out my camera until I was out of sight from the entranceway. You should check the website at the end of this article and scan thru the images for the impressive flower clock with its arresting display of colors and the many fountains that greets you when your first step into the gardens. My eyes trace the many Antillean palm swifts carving their way across the muted gray sky. Hispaniolan parakeets noisily fly just over the tree line. It has been over twenty years from my last visit, and it feels like yesterday!

I veer off in the opposite direction of the arriving patrons. I follow a road that takes me into a semi-wooded area. The call of a woodpecker leads me to a pair of trees, leafless, but laden with olive-shaped fruits. Several pajaro carpinteros twist themselves vertically, horizontally, even upside down among the branches, using their stiff tail feathers as props to reach a ripened morsel. The sky is overcast, plus the occasional drizzle creates the need to continually adjust for exposure.

Even in this light, Melanerpes striatus, the Hispaniolan woodpecker, has quite the outfit. A bold cape of arched black-and-gold bands streamlines its way to its wings, now checkered with the same refinement and further accentuated by an all-black tail. Both sexes have their napes adorned in red, it extends to the crown in the male, the female’s is jet black. The gray face is lit up with piercing golden eyes, its underside a warm brownish olive. "Su gloria suprama," a rump patch of crimson is revealed as the bird takes to the air.

A high-pitched chatter leads me to a flowering Firebush. At first the bird appears entirely black but its swift movements reveal the emerald green of a male Antillean Mango. I take a blurry image of its departure, still, its splayed tail of raspberry red is quite evident.

The sky is overcast, but no rain, as the road opens to manicured lawns with palms and other tropical trees. Woodpeckers (Woodies, for short) are everywhere.

Mockingbird’s jumbled repertoire is accompanied by high pitched trills of Gray kingbirds. Another gray bird with chestnut wing patches zips across the scene, it lands inside a tangle of vines that have engulfed the trunk of a towering palm. I race over, shifting left and right, attempting to guess where it might reveal itself. No luck, the lizard cuckoo departs from the backside, vanishing into the forest beyond.

The song of a Black-whiskered vireo turns my attention to a flowering tree, hosting wintering warblers and the Dominican Republic’s national bird, Dulus dominicus, the Palmchat.

Dappled rays of light allow for some nice shots of the Palmchats.

I turn to continue and flush a Red-legged thrush into a nearby tree. Its steel-gray backside facing me, glancing over his shoulder reveals an orange-red bill with a deep red eye ring that intensifies the glint in its eye. “Hi fella!” It’s nice getting reacquainted with some viejos amigos de aves.

Up goes the umbrella, the avian activity continues unabated. A Greater Antillean grackle alights just in front of me, searching for food under the leaves scattered across the lawn.

Black feathers streaked with water glisten like bits of broken glass, tiny droplets add to its vestments. My ears are my compass, a commotion to the East. I recognize a mockingbird and palmchats but there are others flitting about.

I raise my binoculars for a closer look, “Voila!” Black-crowned Warbler-tanagers. As I approach the flock takes to the air. I scan the treetop and find a lone individual. It becomes a struggle to capture an image as it has hunkered down high up in the tree to wait out the rain. I am about to move on with most of the birds having taken flight, when it dawns on me,

an isolated jumble of squeaky notes is from a Vervain hummingbird. It is the second smallest bird in the world, but in this moment you need to look for a high exposed, and preferably leafless bough, in the vicinity of its voice and there will be the vocalist. “Yep!” It may be drab, green and gray, but it makes up for the dull attire with persistent song.

The ubiquitous Woodies fill the many fruiting trees at every level, even foraging on the ground. The raucous calls of Hispaniolan parakeets create quite a ruckus.

A kestrel, chasing them from perch to perch, adds to their ostentatious behavior. I take their lead and follow the road to the River Trail. My time is limited so I must cover as much territory as possible. I squeeze in some pix of an orchid before entering the shadows of the forest. The darkness does not last long as the banks of the …River open up to the skies on the right with a sheer wall of lushness on my left. It is much more overgrown since my last visit (“Hello!” It has been over twenty years!).

I recall along this road having taken pictures of an immature Antillean Mango, Narrow-billed Tody and a pair of West Indian whistling ducks that were used for my first book. Hence, I veer off the path at times to get a better view of the water below.

It does not take long before I encounter a cooperative pair of ducks. I feel I took too many pix, but when opportunity comes your way, especially with digital imagery, no more wasted money on film and processing. Also, it turned out that these were the only two birds I came across. On my last trek their numbers were much greater as their wheezy calls escorted me up and down the river.

At another turnoff I hear the grunting of a Gallinule, but it is straight down from where I stand, a steep cliff and thick vegetation obscures the bird’s movement; it is only revealed by arcing rings in the water. Later, I find an adult with a pair of chicks browsing along the opposite bank.

A small picnic area with a scenic view of the river allows me to avoid the rain. I grab a bite while waiting it out when a hummer comes flitting into the scene. It is a female Antillean mango and she lands just below my vantage point. Soon the skies part. Another clearing reveals multiple turtles basking in the sun. A pair of Julia butterflies chase one another in an open patch alongside the trail.

Crossing the road are these concentric bands of chocolate brown with alternating rings of orange that lumber along on a multitude of tiny legs, this is one very large millipede.

The path slopes offering more views to the watery realm. A concrete embankment hosts a sunbathing Green iguana,

more Hispaniolan Sliders greet the sun on their favorite basking logs. Sadly, these gardens sit literally within the island’s largest city so there is a great amount of filth in the river.

Nature is resilient and adaptable. I discover a Least grebe cruising in the olive-brown waters. I do my best to get a decent image. It seems to be indifferent of my presence but the vegetation that drapes over the water makes things difficult. I move on with hopes of another encounter. I get just that and more!

A large chick cowering behind its parent sits atop a nest tangled within a twisted amount of debris. Later, on my return, I find this little waterbird has successfully raised two chicks.

The sun stays for a while. Palmchats noisily feed about the canopy. A Hispaniolan Lizard- cuckoo calls, then another from the opposite side of the river. I pull out my phone and take a video of the serenity of the moment; the birds ring out again. I replay their calls and off to the left, one responds. I play it again and ready my camera.

It traipses around a fork of a large tree; a bit camera shy. It peeks from behind its shelter, a quick shot before it disappears. Then it hops out onto an exposed limb for a second to quickly fly back from whence it came. I realize it is time to head back, to give myself

enough time to make several photo stops enroute.

Back at the picnic stop a Common ground dove sheepishly peers thru the barrier fence, wondering what my interest might be. At the junction turnoff I surprise another ground dwelling critter, it skirts its way into the understory. I “pish” to entice its curiosity. What a surprise, out pops an old acquaintance, an Ovenbird!

The forest opens back up to the grounds of sloping grass-lined contours and its assemblage of trees. Woodies greet me but my attraction is directed to several yellow flowering trees.

In search of a sweet morsel, I find resident Palmchats and several Bananaquits along with some...

...Cape May Warblers and

...Yellow-throated Warblers,

The skies again have been shrouded in gray. I flush a butterfly which immediately lands onto the trunk of a tree, facing downward. This pansy has a mosaic of earth tone colors that make it one with the bark.

Hastily I move only to come to an abrupt halt when confronted with a tree full of parakeets. These Inkwood trees have plenty of fruits to go around but there is always a squabble, one bird wanting what the other one has.

The skies open up just as I make my way to the exit. I miss a ride but the parking attendant gestures that another taxi will be coming through. As I wait, I cannot help but feel grateful for having a wonderful time at the gardens, again! I invite those of you to partake in its offerings of unique avian activity and guess what, there is plenty of flora to enjoy as well!

Location: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Date: February of 2021

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