I’d got to this isolated village by Jeep with Dr Jose Nunez-Mino, the Field Project Manager for the Hispaniola Endemic Land Mammals Project, funded by the UK’s Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. It is set up to learn more about the needs of the Hispaniolan Solenodon, a rare rodent that looks like an oversized shrew with a Pinocchio-shaped snout. I didn’t see any solenodons (they are nocturnal and difficult to spot anyway) but Jose turned out to be a great guide. Travelling into the national park on rough, wet tracks in the humid heat he stopped where we overlooked a clearing in which the local farmers had planted (illegally) crops in front of some forest.
Jose pointed to a nest in one of the trees. It was the nest of one of the world’s rarest birds of prey, a Ridgway’s Hawk, down to maybe 100 pairs and all of them now confined to this part of the Dominican Republic. They’re in decline mainly because these forests are not protected – even those in the national park – and local communities are slowly clearing them. This slash-and-burn farming to grow crops year-on-year is gradually depleting the very forest that the Los Haitises National Park was created to protect.
With binoculars we could make out a young bird or two in the nest but the adults were nowhere to be seen until, suddenly, the male – slate grey with rusty wing patches and belly – landed in a tree nearby, shortly to be joined by the browner female. It was, I thought, a close-up of a rare bird that might not exist within a human generation.
Making arrangements to meet a guide you have arranged to hire can be much less straightforward than you might imagine too. Preparing for a short visit to the Souss Massa National Park on the west coast of Morocco I contacted Mohamed Bargache, a locally based bird guide who lives in a village within the park. I had read reports saying how good he was. By email I had bloged him for a full day.
This national park was primarily set up to protect the sea-cliff breeding areas, and the semi-desert feeding grounds, of one of the world’s rarest – though certainly not the most beautiful – birds. The Northern Bald Ibis, the size of a large goose, has a dull red-coloured but bald face, a long down-curved red beak and glossy, slightly iridescent block plumage all over. Ibises are related to spoonbills but, unlike virtually all its relatives, this one eschews wetlands and lives in very arid locations.
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