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Leaf 4: Lenny, Bob, Jerry, Dave, two Bills, and the Birds

A leaf from:

This Broken Land of Promise:

A Chronicle of Conservation in the Hispaniolan Border Country

Last December, Matt and I took six expert birders down to our Tree Bank program area, to begin gathering data on which bird species are using our various forests and forest-restoration sites. The birders were all members of the Virginia Society of Ornithology. The trip was organized by Lenny Bankester, VSO’s Vice President and a member of the Sangha. Lenny was one of the six visiting birders; the other five were Bob Ake, Bill Akers, Jerry Via, Dave Youker, and Bill Williams.

This trip was an important step for our program. Birds are, by far, Hispaniola’s most common, most diverse, and most conspicuous class of native animal wildlife, and we need to know which species are present in our program area, and how our work affects them. Among the questions that we hoped to make a start at answering: Which bird species are benefiting from our forest-restoration work? Are we helping migrants — species that spend their winters in our program area, then fly up to the eastern United States to breed? Are we helping endemics — species that occur naturally only on Hispaniola? How many of the species on our sites are in decline? Are any endangered?

And since we hope to repeat the bird count every winter (when those migrants are most likely to be present), birding data could eventually help us understand how to improve our program.

The trip was also going to be a major test of our organizing skills. Up to this point, our hosting experience had been limited to a single visitor: our friend Steve Biver, who is a videographer and photographer, and who went down with us in 2012. This was to be our first group visit.

Planning the trip was a formidable exercise — at least by my standards. But I managed to work out a little budget, based on conversations with our Dominican hosts. The biggest issue: how much food would be needed, and especially how much “American” food. The definition of this latter item seemed to fluctuate but retained a core of animal protein. (I’m a vegetarian. Matt eats chickens but not cows.) Once we had a budget, the birders all paid their own ways — and added in generous tips to our hosts.

We also needed a birding procedure, so Lenny and I developed one and had it reviewed by Juan Carlos Martinez Sanchez, an expert on Hispaniolan birds. He approved, so we felt reasonably confident about it, but you never know how well something will work in the field until you actually try it.

The greatest logistical burden was borne by our colleagues in Los Cerezos, the little community at the heart of our program area. Six birders plus Matt and me: that may not sound overwhelming but this is not an Airbnb kind of situation. Our area has no hotels, little electricity, no stores larger than your living room, and no other businesses of any kind — unless you count occasional visits to the local elementary school by this guy who has an enormous, popsicle-filled cooler strapped onto his motorcycle.

Here follows an overview of visit preparations.

Mari, our hostess, and Yinabel, the Tree Bank’s Coordinator Extraordinaire, bought a pickup truck’s worth of food and treated water, then organized its delivery to Los Cerezos from Loma de Cabrera, the nearest town, about eight miles down the mountain. Yinabel also arranged for a driver and van, for travel from the airport in Santiago de los Caballeros, and back again. It takes the better part of a day to get out of Santiago and up to Los Cerezos. We needed a dormitory, so Frankie, our nursery hand, and whoever else was around at the time, cleaned out a cabin that Mari’s family was using as a storage shed. Cosme and Manolo, the Tree Bank’s Co-Directors, rounded up six beds from various cabins, and shared them out between the repurposed shed and the “casita” (“little house”) that shares a wall with Mari’s house. Matt and I usually sleep in Mari’s house. We offered to retreat to the Tree Bank garage, next to Frankie’s cabin, but Yinabel nixed that idea on account of the rather casual joinery in the walls and a potentially leaky roof. A final amenity: Adonis, Mari’s 14-year-old nephew, ran a wire from Mari’s house to the dormitory so that the guests would have a light. The electrical grid arrived in Los Cerezos in 2015, and Adonis is fascinated with electricity.

And then we arrived: Matt and me, the birders, and their equipment, which consisted mostly of binoculars and cameras with expensive lenses. Other noteworthy cargo: various toys for the local kids. If memory serves, the selection emphasized projectiles — usually a good bet. There were frisbees, balsawood airplanes, light-up bouncy balls, and so forth. Lenny also brought his home-made banjo down to serenade the kids. Bob Ake brought eight pairs of binoculars to donate to the local elementary school.

The birders spent three days in Los Cerezos, working in accordance with the procedure that Lenny and I developed. They investigated three sites, each representing a common program scenario:

1. One of Lucío’s fields, which is being restored to native forest canopy. Lucío is the Treasurer of our partner association, the Asociación de Productores de Bosque, Los Cerezos. His field was planted with native tree seedlings last year. He’s still using it to grow beans and pigeon peas (“guandules” in the local Spanish — a shrub that produces a lentil-like seed usually eaten with rice). But trees grow fast in the tropics, so in three or four years, the saplings will begin to shade out those crops, and Lucío will start putting in an understory of cocoa and coffee seedlings.

2. Manolo’s cafetal (coffee grove). Like nearly all the local cafetales, Manolo’s has a well-developed native-tree canopy, and, like all the others, it lost every one of its coffee trees to the coffee-leaf rust epidemic of 2014. It has since been replanted with rust-resistant coffee seedlings, produced at one of the Tree Bank nurseries.

And 3. Cosme’s Credit Reserve. Cosme is one of the 40 or so local farmers who have modest lines of credit from the Tree Bank, in exchange for conservation easements on forests that they own. Cosme’s forest is on steep slopes and is mostly riparian — that is, most of the forest is growing along a stream. This is a typical scenario in our region. The steepest slopes are usually riparian and are difficult to farm, so they host a disproportionate share of surviving forest.

The birders divided themselves into three teams of two people each. In the mornings, the teams would match themselves up with the sites and each team would spend about two hours on its site, logging every bird encountered, either by sight or sound. All three teams worked at more or less the same time, to avoid sampling errors that might be caused by avian tendencies towards different levels of activity at different times of day. The teams heading for Cosme’s reserve and Manolo’s cafetal would depart in the pickup with Evelio (local good guy with reliable driving skills), accompanied by Cosme and Manolo. Those two sites are close to each other and about two miles from Mari’s cabin. The other team would walk to Lucío’s beanfield, which is less than three-quarters of a mile down the road. The site assignments rotated, so that by end of the three-day tour, each team had worked all three sites.

Since Matt and I had nothing of practical value to offer this undertaking — a situation to which we are thoroughly accustomed — we spent the birding time sitting on Mari’s porch, drinking coffee, and either teasing or ignoring the local kids, until Cosme and Manolo showed up again, at which point we had meetings.

In the afternoons, our visitors went for walks and had long conversations in which birds tended to play conspicuous roles. Frisbee tutorials were offered, Lenny played his banjo, and various neighbors came by to say hello. We had only one bad moment: Jerry fell near the edge of the ravine in Cosme’s Reserve, and banged up his nose pretty badly. He really scared me, but once back at the cabin, he just bandaged up his nose and carried on without complaint. Had that been my nose, I’m not sure that I would have reacted with such composure.

Our routine was nourished by near-continual cooking. Three times a day, Mari and her mother, Catana, and sometimes also Yinabel, turned out meals for all the guests, as well as for various family members, and whoever else happened to be around — hangers-on and hangers-out.

Most of this food issued from Mari’s tiny, grimy kitchen. Crowded with provisions and stacks of dishes, her kitchen is barely large enough to accommodate two people at once. What Mari didn’t produce, Catana did — in an even more elemental operation: a battered, little, dirt-floor shack of corrugated metal just beyond Mari’s kitchen door. Inside the Food Shack, Catana presides over a wood fire, built on a table topped with a crude concrete form. Whatever it is — if Dominicans habitually eat it, Catana can probably produce it from this smoky stall.

Matt and I are accustomed to Mari’s and Catana’s cooking. It’s not hard to get used to; it’s excellent. Mari makes fun of my frequent use of the word “excellent” (¡excelente!) but in this case, at least, it’s apt.

In addition to her role as Chef, Mari has a half-day job at the local elementary school, just up the road. She also has a four-year-old daughter to keep an eye on: Samali, an emphatic wielder of American crayons, when these are available, and occasional terror of the local farmyard fauna.

I can report that the birders really knew their birds. They all seemed to have had a great deal of experience birding in both the United States and abroad. Two of them (Jerry and Bill Akers) had been to the Dominican Republic before, but not to this part of it.

They all had a sort of understated facility with their craft:

“What kind of bird is that?” I asked Bob Ake, when the object of my attention had alighted in the field that we were facing.

“Oh that’s just a bananaquit,” he said. “There are grassquits here too.”

And they worked easily with Cosme and Manolo, who, as it turned out, recognize a lot of birds and are very good at spotting them. I had no idea — and was embarrassed to realize that I had never asked them much of anything about birds.

On one walk, Lenny tried out a less traditional approach: he had a cell phone app that played bird calls. Would any of the local birds respond to a recorded call from another member of their own species? As far as I could tell, none of the birds around us wanted to answer Lenny’s cell phone.

Anyway, the point that I’m trying to get to is that our formula worked. Experienced practitioners, a simple protocol, good food, plenty of down time (a Dominican specialty), and that’s pretty much it: a successful recipe, it seems, for collecting an impressive lode of data. Or at least I think it’s impressive. I had been a little uncertain about the likelihood of a good count, given the loss of native forest. But we now know that both migrants and endemics are well represented on our sites and we have at least one species that is officially on the IUCN redlist: the white-necked crow (Corvus leucognaphalus). It is listed as “vulnerable,” which means that it’s going to become endangered if its circumstances don’t improve. Here are all the data.

We’re already looking forward to this winter’s expedition. Our plan is to continue the census on last winter’s sites. If we think that we’re up to it, we may add one or two more, to represent other important forest scenarios. We may also host a larger group of birders. We’ll see. So much to anticipate! Will we find all of last winter’s species? Will we find others? Will Samali pioneer a relationship with the family goats that is less dependent on abrupt physical contact? I personally would welcome all of these options.

“This Broken Land of Promise” is my attempt to describe and interpret our Tree Bank Hispaniola program. I welcome your comments and questions. Please write me in the comment box below or email me at

— Chris Bright

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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