Caribbean Classic: Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic & Jamaica

The Caribbean can feel like a daunting place to visit, with so many islands, with so many endemic birds; it is hard to know where to begin.The answer is here, start with Puerto Rico, move to Dominican Republic and then end it with the easiest birding of all in Jamaica!

The main tour comprises of an endemic “hunt” on the islands of Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where each island offers endemics all of their own (around 29 and 17 respectively). A short add-on (or stand-alone short tour) to Jamaica for another 28 endemic species, all of which are usually readily found. Thus, by combining the main tour and the extension to Jamaica, over 70 island endemic birds are on offer in just 18 days, plus some more widespread Caribbean specialties. Among these are five key Caribbean bird families, the Palmchat, (easily found on Hispaniola); the todies, (two species in the Dominican Republic, and one each on Puerto Rico and Jamaica); the spindalises (all islands have their own single, easy species); Hispaniolan Tanagers (another family only found on Hispaniola); and Puerto Rican Tanager, a monotypic family confined to that island. All these families are typically found on this itinerary.

The tour starts in the US state of Puerto Rico, chasing a tody, a woodpecker, a screech-owl, a parakeet, and a bullfinch all named after the island, in addition to Elfin Woods and Adelaide’s Warblers among other island specialties. Moving on to the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola, (the nation of Dominican Republic), Palmchat will be one of our main targets, along with Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, Ashy-faced Owl, Hispaniolan Emerald, Hispaniolan Trogon, Narrow and Broad-billed Todies, Hispaniolan Highland-Tanager, Eastern and Western Chat-Tanagers, and Hispaniolan Crossbill.

Good reason to include Jamaica; only there can you see Streamertails!
Good reason to include Jamaica; only there can you see Streamertails! (Sam Woods)

Finally, for those with more time on their hands, they can also visit Jamaica on an optional extension, with its spectacular Streamertails, Jamaican Mango, Crested Quail-Dove, Jamaican Owl, Arrowhead Warbler, Yellow and Black-billed Parrots, and odd, solitary Jamaican Blackbird.

Note: This itinerary may be subject to later changes caused by weather events. For example, the effect of Hurricane Maria in 2017 has currently prevented visits to Rio Abajo to be restricted. While we believe this will be open again by the time of this tour, we cannot guarantee this. This currently only effects access to one of the island endemics.

Robin Red Breast AKA Jamaican Tody
Robin Red Breast AKA Jamaican Tody (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Arrival in San Juan (Puerto Rico). San Juan is well connected to mainland North America; after your arrival an airport shuttle will aid your transfer to a local hotel. One night will be spent in San Juan.

Day 2: San Juan to Northeast Puerto Rico. On this day we will east from the capital into the northeast of the island, where a number of sites in the Lunquillo hills and surrounds are home to a mouthwatering set of endemic species.
We will be on the lookout for flowering trees in particular, as a sweet set of hummingbirds occurs in the area, including Antillean Crested Hummingbird, and Puerto Rican Emerald. Aside from these marquee species, the area is home to a wonderful variety of Caribbean specialties and Puerto Rico endemics, which include Puerto Rican Woodpecker, Puerto Rican Vireo, Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Gray and Loggerhead Kingbirds, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, and Puerto Rican Bullfinch. Of particular interest here, will also be our first shot at two Caribbean families, with Puerto Rican Tody and Puerto Rican Spindalis both available. At night we can search for Puerto Rican Screech-Owl. A single night will be spent at Lunquillo, close to the hills and forests of this region.

The distinctive Puerto Rican Woodpecker is one of 17 endemics to that island
The distinctive Puerto Rican Woodpecker is one of 17 endemics to that island (Andrew Spencer)

Day 3: To Southwest Puerto Rico. After some final time in the northeast, we shall make the drive to the southwest of this small island, arriving for a two-night stay in Guanica in time for another specialist nightbird search; this time the endemic Puerto Rican Nightjar will be on our hitlist in the area around La Parguera. Hopefully, we will arrive in time to search for the local Yellow-shouldered Blackbird around that town too before dusk descends. Two nights will be spent in Guanica.

Bananaquit is a familiar Caribbean species
Bananaquit is a familiar Caribbean species (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Maricao and Guanica State Forests (Puerto Rico). Much of the day will split between these areas, which includes hill forests and coastal areas in the southwest of Puerto Rico. Among a range of endemics available are some special ones we will be targeting particularly in this area, notably Adelaide’s and Elfin Woods Warblers, and the Puerto Rican Tanager. The latter species sits within a family its own, restricted to this Caribbean island. Other possibilities on the bird list on this day will be other specialties, like Green Mango, Puerto Rican Oriole, Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, Lesser Antillean Pewee, Caribbean Martin, and Red-legged Thrush. If we did not get time the afternoon before, we will ensure we make time to look for Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, a southwestern specialty.

Most of Puerto Rico's endemics are readily located, like Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo
Most of Puerto Rico's endemics are readily located, like Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (Andrew Spencer)

Day 5: Southwest Puerto Rico to the North Coast. After further time at one of the birding areas of the southwest, we will make the long journey to the north coast, stopping off for a night in Arecibo. At night, we can try again for Puerto Rican Screech-Owl if needed.

Day 6: Rio Abajo State Forest to San Juan (Puerto Rico); fly to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). This isolated forest reserve close to the north coast holds a wide variety of endemics, although by this point the one we are most likely to be focused on is the Puerto Rican Parrot, for which this is the last stronghold. After the morning in this area, we will travel to the airport in San Juan, and take a short flight to nearby Santo Domingo on the Dominican Republic. The night will be spent in the nation’s capital.

*Special Note: Rio Abajo has had restricted access following the effects of hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico in September 2017. However, we believe that by the time this tour is run access will open up again, although we cannot guarantee this. In general, while the birding sites have been affected by the hurricane, the only endemic that may be affected is the one at this site, Puerto Rican Parrot.

The striking Hispaniolan Woodpecker will be one of many targets in the DR
The striking Hispaniolan Woodpecker will be one of many targets in the DR (Andrew Spencer)

Day 7: National Botanical Gardens to Villa Barrancoli (Dominican Republic). We will start out in the wonderful botanical gardens in Santo Domingo, where we will quickly begin to build our endemic bird list for this new island; some stellar species can be found right there, like Hispaniolan Woodpecker and Hispaniolan Parakeet. It is also a reliable spot for West Indian Whistling-Duck too. However, best of all will be a chance at two families that are endemic to the island Black-crowned Palm-Tanager and the conspicuous Palmchat. A variety of North American Warblers can often be found wintering here too. After a few hours we will head out of the city and up into the mountains of the Sierra de Baharuco National Park. In particular, we will be heading to the northern side of the mountains, and the higher elevations, where some endemics are only found. Two nights will be spent at Villa Barrancoli, a simple place that allows access to these key species.

One of Hispaniola's must see bird families, the monotypic Palmchat
One of Hispaniola's must see bird families, the monotypic Palmchat (Andrew Spencer)

Day 8: Villa Barrancoli (Northern Sierra de Barahuco) Dominican Republic. A full day will be spent in this area, especially focusing on species that cannot easily be seen (or at all) elsewhere on the island, like the shy La Selle Thrush, White-fronted Quail-Dove, Hispaniolan Trogon, Narrow-billed Tody (that replaces Broad-billed Tody at higher elevations), Hispaniolan Pewee, Western Chat-Tanager, and White-winged and Green-tailed Warblers. The latter two “warbler” species are now classified in an endemic family to the island, the Hispaniolan Tanagers! A second night will be spent at Villa Barrancoli, the best location to access the higher elevation species.

Hispaniola has two endemic species of Tody, this is the highland version (Narrow-billed)
Hispaniola has two endemic species of Tody, this is the highland version (Narrow-billed) (Andrew Spencer)

Day 9: To the Southern Sierra de Barahuco (Dominican Republic). On this day we will descend the road from the highpoints of Villa Barrancoli in order to be able to bird middle and lower elevations on this and the next day. One of our targets within the pine forests on the south slope, will be the distinct Hispaniolan Crossbill. Other targets at lower sites will include Hispaniolan Parakeet, Broad-billed Tody, Antillean Piculet, Hispaniolan Woodpecker, Antillean Mango, Vervain Hummingbird (the world’s second smallest bird), Hispaniolan Parakeet, Hispaniolan Parrot, Hispaniolan Pewee, White-necked Crow, Antillean Euphonia, Hispaniolan Oriole, Antillean Siskin, and Greater Antilliean Bullfinch. There is a lot of overlap between this day and the next, but it is highly likely that two days will be needed to find many of the endemic targets. Night in a hotel in the town of Barahona.

Day 10: El Aceitillar (Southern Sierra de Barahauco) Dominican Republic. A full day will be spent birding this good paved road that starts out in dry thorn scrub near sea level, and then rises into broadleaf forests, before emerging into wetter forests higher still. A very long species list occurs at this sprawling site, with species like both todies, Key West Quail-Dove, the rare Bay-breasted Cuckoo, Palm Crow, Caribbean and Golden Swallows, Green-tailed Warbler, Hispaniolan Spindalis, and Black-crowned Palm-Tanager all possible. After a long day trip in this area, we shall spend a second and final night in Barahona¡. At night, we can search for Ashy-faced Owl after dinner for those who wish to do so.

Ashy-faced Owl will be a major night target in the Dominican Republic
Ashy-faced Owl will be a major night target in the Dominican Republic (Andrew Spencer)

Day 11: Cachote area to Sabana de la Mar (Dominican Republic). Early in the day we will go after one of the more local endemics to the island, the Eastern Chat-Tanager, before traveling up to Paraiso Casa Honda, near Sabana de la Mar for a two-night stay. On these nights we will have further chances at Ashy-faced Owl.

Day 12: Las Haitises National Park (Dominican Republic). This park is on the itinerary for one of the toughest of all the endemics, the Ridgway’s Hawk. This is one of the only places to see the bird on the island in recent times, and even then we will require some luck. The park comprises of mangroves and limestone-based lowland broadleaf forest. While searching for the hawk, we’ll be on the lookout for other species like, Antillean Palm-Swift, Antillean Mango, Antillean Piculet, Stolid Flycatcher, Black-whiskered Vireo, White-necked Crow, the must-see Palmchat, and Yellow-faced Grassquit. By this point thought, we may have seen many of the birds in the park aside from the hawk!

Antillean Piculet: Endemic to the island of Hispaniola
Antillean Piculet: Endemic to the island of Hispaniola (Andrew Spencer)

Day 13: Sabana de la Mar to Santo Domingo/DEPARTURE or Fly to Kingston, Jamaica for extension. After a few brief further hours in the Sabana de la Mar area, we shall drive south back to Santo Domingo, where people can take afternoon flights back home, or fly to Kingston airport in southeast Jamaica to start the extension. The night will be spent in Kingston for those joining the extension.

A classic scene on Jamaica's north coast
A classic scene on Jamaica's north coast (Sam Woods)

__________________________

OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Jamaica Extension (6 days)

Jamaica is a small island (smaller even than the US state of Connecticut), with 29 endemic bird species all of its own. In general, Jamaican birding is easy going, so that even in a short trip of this nature, there is a realistic chance of seeing them all. This is done by focusing on the two main birding areas on the island, which are both located in eastern Jamaica; the Blue Mountains, and the infamous Ecclesdown Road in the parish of Portland. While in the Blue Mountains there will also be a chance to sample their Worlds famous coffee. BY adding this to the main tour more than 70 endemic species, confined to either of these islands, will be on offer, and 5 Caribbean bird families. This section can also be taken separately on its own.

Crested Quail-Dove sits quietly in Jamaica's Blue Mountains
Crested Quail-Dove sits quietly in Jamaica's Blue Mountains (Sam Woods)

Day 1 (day 13 of the main tour): Arrival in Kingston. After arrival in Kingston, you will be transferred to a local Kingston hotel for the night. If there are people joining for this section only, they will meet up with the rest of the group in the evening for dinner.

Day 2: Hellshire Hills & Hope Gardens to the Blue Mountains. Our Jamaican tour with a pre-dawn start to ensure we make it the short distance to Hellshire Hills a short time after dawn, before the intense Caribbean heat makes the place unpleasant to bird. We should need only a short time here to find the key species, Bahama Mockingbird, which has just two small populations on the island, and Jamaican Mango. Then we’ll move to the tranquil enclave of Hope Gardens (located near the rainbow-colored Bob Marley Museum), where parrots will be on the agenda; this site provides the best chance on the tour for the endemic, and handsome Yellow-billed Parrot. While there we may also find “Jamaican” Parakeet (an endemic subspecies that may be split off from the widespread Olive-throated Parakeet).

Yellow-billed Parrot can be found in Kingston
Yellow-billed Parrot can be found in Kingston (Sam Woods)

After lunch in Kingston, we shall head north into the pleasantly cool Blue Mountains, an area famed for production of some of the most revered coffee in the World, and also one of the ultimate sites for endemic birds on Jamaica. In the afternoon, we will check in to the serene surroundings of our mountain chalet, which comes equipped with busy bird feeders, and endemic birds right in their well-manicured garden. We will spend two nights at a comfortable chalet in the Blue Mountains.

Jamaica's spectacular national bird, the common Red-billed Streamertail
Jamaica's spectacular national bird, the common Red-billed Streamertail (Sam Woods)

Day 3: The Blue Mountains. A full day will be spent birding in one of the most idyllic locations in Jamaica, the Blue Mountains. Here the habitat is montane forest at an elevation of some 4000ft/1225m, which provides not only streams of endemic species (all but a few of the endemic birds can be found there), but also a pleasing climate, in sharp contrast to the heat and humidity of Kingston and other lowland coastal sites. Our target here will be to amass more than 20 of the endemic species, including some of the scarcer ones, for which this represents arguably the best site on the island, like Jamaican Blackbird (a strange, bromeliad-loving forest icterid), Crested Quail-Dove, and the well-named Blue Mountain Vireo. Some of the more common endemic birds include the hulking Ring-tailed Pigeon that regularly pass overhead; Jamaican Pewee, which regular flit from their regular perches; White-chinned Thrush that often hops on and off the dirt roads that cuts through the mountain, and the super Jamaican Tody, which, by voice, appears to be around every corner!

This Jamaican Owl was photographed within the grounds of our hotel
This Jamaican Owl was photographed within the grounds of our hotel (Sam Woods)

Our mountain chalet comes with a small set of sugar feeders, which attract one of Jamaica’s most famous birds. Known locally as the “Doctor Bird”, the Red-billed Streamertail, is Jamaica’s national bird, proudly adorning roads signs, and tourist paraphernalia, this is the most regular visitor to the chalet’s feeders, located on a balcony overlooking their well-managed garden. Other birds that may drop in for the “sugar harvest”, include Jamaican Oriole, the endemic Orangequit, and perhaps too a wintering American warbler or two. Among the other endemic targets will be Jamaican Becard, Sad Flycatcher, the stunning Jamaican Spindalis, and Arrow-headed Warbler. At night we can take the chance to search for a Jamaican Owl or Northern Potoo too.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoos are striking but curiously inconspicuous
Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoos are striking but curiously inconspicuous (Sam Woods)

Day 4: The Blue Mountains to Port Antonio. We will have a final morning in the Blue Mountains to search for any “missing” endemics we might still need like the subdued Jamaican Elaenia, the chocolate-headed White-eyed Thrush, or striking Yellow-shouldered Grassquit (not your average grassquit for sure with its saffron back, burnt red vent, and coal black underside), before we move up to the north coast, some two-hours’ drive away.

The tangerine colored Jamaican Spindalis from a specialist Caribbean bird family
The tangerine colored Jamaican Spindalis from a specialist Caribbean bird family (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Ecclesdown Road to Montego Bay. The morning will focus on the lowland forests and woods at the base of the John Crow Mountains, alongside the famous Ecclesdown Road. This is one of the most famous birding destinations in Jamaica and can lay claim to hosting every single one of Jamaica’s endemic birds. Therefore, it provides an excellent backup site for any that may have been missed in the Blue Mountains (which is still a necessary site for some of these, providing the optimum chances for species like Blue Mountain Vireo, Crested Quail-Dove, and Jamaican Blackbird); it is also the only good site on the tour for the Black-billed Parrot, the local Black-billed Streamertail (that is confined to the northeast of Jamaica), and Jamaican Crow, (which is strangely absent from southern Jamaica). After a full morning in this area, we shall drive east after lunch to spend the night in Montego Bay in readiness for flights out.

Day 6: Rocklands Bird Sanctuary to Montego Bay for Departures. Afternoon departures should be planned if you wish to visit Rocklands Bird Sanctuary, which is an hour from the airport. The sanctuary typically opens at 10am and we plan a two-hour visit, after which we will transfer people to the airport for mid-late afternoon departures. If anyone wishes to leave earlier then earlier transfers can be arranged, but the sanctuary visit will be missed. The sanctuary has been included not because it is likely to offer anything new, but it has amazing feeders for getting up close to species like Orangequit, Greater Antilliean Bullfinch, Red-billed Streamertail and Jamaican Mango, and also allows people to depart from Montego Bay, which is the best connected Jamaican airport with other international airports. The tour ends with a transfer to the airport in Montego Bay.

Orangequit is an abundant Jamaican endemic
Orangequit is an abundant Jamaican endemic (Sam Woods)

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed to moderate. While early starts and long days are required, this is not a physically difficult tour. On Jamaica and Puerto Rico, the pace is fairly relaxed, although on Dominican Republic on the main tour the pace is a little faster, with the longest days in the field of any section of the tour. The birding in Puerto Rico and Jamaica is relatively easy, with most of the birding along roads. On the Dominican Republic more walking is required, and some longer days, as well as drives on very rough roads in the mountains of that island (on days 7,8 ,9 and 11). On Puerto Rico and Jamaica, the roads are generally in a good condition. On Puerto Rico drives vary from around an hour to one drive of around 3 hours (on day 3); in the Dominican Republic, drives range from 90mins to around 6 hours (on days 2 and day 11); in Jamaica the longest drive is only 3 hours on the final day.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to Moderate. The walking on this trip is generally easy, with no steep or difficult hikes. Most of the walks are on roads, but some of these on the Dominican Republic have inclines. The walking on Puerto Rico and on the extension in Jamaica is easy. The highest point of the entire main tour and extension will be on the days of 7 and 8 in the Dominican Republic, which is over 2000m/6560ft. The highest point on the extension in Jamaica will be 5000ft/1500m for three days in the Blue Mountains.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent on the extension in Jamaica. Generally, the same on Puerto Rico, although the night of day 2 will be in a simple hotel of lower standard to everywhere else except the 2 nights mentioned next on Dominican Republic. Good for the most part in the Dominican Republic too, but there are two nights in simple chalets on days 7 and 8, where there are shared bathrooms.

CLIMATE: At this time of year, some of the coolest temperatures are recorded on all of the islands (including on the extension in Jamaica), and it typically the driest time of year. In short, this is the most pleasant time to visit, as it is not so hot, and avoids the rainy season. That said, it is still hot and humid in the lowlands on all of the islands, but can get wet and chilly in the highlands on all of the islands, especially in the Dominican Republic, where the highest point of the tour is reached. Average temperatures at this time of year through the region are 69F – 86F (21F – 30C), so it is still very hot in the lowlands of the Caribbean, even in this cool, dry season.

WHEN TO GO: This part of the Caribbean is generally cooler and drier at this time of year, and therefore has been timed for the most pleasant time to bird it (i.e. December to March). This is also the time of year when the Caribbean residents are supplemented by a substantial number of boreal migrants wintering from North America, making this the optimum birding season.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is BIRDING tour, and therefore the priority will always be to make sure everyone has seen the birds before taking photos. However, some parts of this tour can be fantastic for photography even on a birding tour. This is particularly true on Jamaica in the Blue Mountains, and also during our short visit to Rocklands Bird Sanctuary on the final day of the tour. There are no other places with feeders on the tour at this time, but on the fly photos will be possible of course!

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay, and have at least one blank page available. Visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, and the UK. For people of other nationalities, please check with your local Jamaican embassy/consulate. If you are traveling from an area where Yellow Fever is know to occur, a valid certificate of vaccination is required, and will need to be shown on entry-this will not apply to most people.

Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to all people except porters and Tropical Birding guide; accommodation from night of day 1 through night of day 12 (main tour), and through to night of day 17 (including extension); meals from dinner on day 1 through to breakfast on day 13 (main tour only), or through to breakfast on day 18 (including the extension); one arrival airport and one departure airport transfer (these might be shared, and may be an official airport shuttle); international flights between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; ground transport to all the sites listed on the itinerary in a suitable modern vehicle for most of the tour (on a few days in the Dominican Republic 4WD vehicles will need to be used); entrance fees to all sites on the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for any luggage porters (if you require their services); international flights to Puerto Rico; international flights out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (main tour only) or Montego Bay, Jamaica (extension); the flight between Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and Kingston, Jamaica in order to join the extension after the main tour (Tropical Birding however will book this to ensure we all have the same flight); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.