As the first snowfall blusters around outside my window I can't help but think about warmer times. Last Christmas was the first Christmas I spent away from the snow, pulled toward the equator and into the warm sea surrounding Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. You may think an all-inclusive resort is a sad excuse for a birder's paradise but quite the contrary, birds do not avoid resorts. Where there are royal palms and abundant crumbs, a diversity of species will flock. Some birds use palms as more than just perches. The Hispaniolan Woodpecker taps around knots in the tree until a nest hole is beveled deep enough to support eggs and nestlings. One such convenient nest cavity existed in the tree right outside my room. I never tired of watching these brilliantly colored birds flit in and out of the nest for all the sunlit hours of the day.
Looking up at the woodpeckers from ground level reveals the purpose of their cryptically colored backs. Their stripes match both the striations in the palm grain and the dappled sunlight coming through the leaves above.
Another group of birds that joins woodpeckers in my top ten favorites list is tyrant flycatchers. Along with murmurations of starlings and the impossibly accurate homing faculties of doves comes the airborne acrobatics of flycatchers. Rather than waiting for insects to land, these aerialists follow the flight patterns of their prey midair to secure a meal. It is a beautiful, athletic hunting game to behold. One such member of this group, the Grey Kingbird, was common within the resort.
And speaking of doves, behold this magnificent Zenaida Dove calling not far from several perched kingbirds.
One of the best parts of tropical areas is that birds get increasingly more speciose as you near the equator. Picture the bridge that I was standing on, just 30 yards long, with kingbirds, doves and of course, the essential Greater Antillean Grackle, all calling side by side.
I direct most of my attention at the comings and goings of birds. But I can't turn down other creatures when I see them. Like this Bark Anole. During my stay, it became a game to search the tops of the garbage bins along the main walkway to the beach for these beauties. I was never disappointed.
The highlight of my trip was a bus tour taken through the mountains around Punta Cana. I saw coffee, coconut and chocolate plantations as well as a school and a small wildlife refuge. The way that Dominican people live in this part of the country is one of the most admirable things I have ever seen. They are completely self-sufficient. There are no grocery stores and very little technology to farm the land. For every need that arises, each family has their own complete set of provisions growing right outside their front door. One such family that we visited had a large garden, cinnamon trees, agave plants, and every other source of spice or herb or food growing along the footpath to their kitchen. Kitchens here are separate buildings from the rest of the house. They are lean-to style rooms with one wall completely removed. And everything is painted in bright colors that stand out against the lush green mountain foliage.
The most common theme of these farms, plantations and houses was chickens. Poultry makes up a large part of the Dominican diet so it's necessary to have a yard full of food at one's disposal year-round. If you didn't know, "chicken" isn't actually the name of a species. They are called Red Junglefowl. How exotic.
The kind family that owned the chocolate plantation also owned this pet White-necked Crow. He was content to sit in his cage with the door wide open to the world and squawk at tourists.
Before we took to the beach for a welcomed swim, we stopped by a wildlife refuge situated in a heavily treed area and hidden from the road. It acts partly as a rehabilitation center for injured wildlife and mostly as a tiny natural zoo.
It was at this wildlife refuge that I witnessed one of the more impressive reptiles that I've seen. Yes, they had an alligator (my favorite animal since childhood, believe it or not) but that's not the fellow I'm talking about. I was lucky enough to observe Rhinoceros Iguanas, a threatened species native only to Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic)!
If people ask me, did I go to the Dominican for poolside Mama Juana (a Dominican drink), I tell them sure, yeah. But really it's always for the birds.