First-of-its-Kind Reserve for Bicknell’s Thrush in the Dominican Republic

By Marc Devokaitis
September 19, 2018
BicknellBicknell's Thrush. Photo by Jim Tietz/Macaulay Library.

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Conservationists recently purchased more than 1,000 acres in the Dominican Republic containing ideal Bicknell’s Thrush wintering habitat to create the Reserva Privada Zorzal (zorzal is the Spanish word for thrush).

The reserve is the Dominican Republic’s first private conservation area under the recently established National Protected Area System, and marks a major step forward for conserving one of North America’s rarest and most endangered songbirds.

Female and male Bicknell’s Thrushes winter in somewhat different habitats, with the males preferring higher-elevation forests. Conservation of the middle-elevation, female-rich winter habitats is a top conservation priority for the species, in part because these areas are more likely to be altered by people.

More than half of the Bicknell’s Thrushes in the world spend the winter in the Dominican Republic. But due to their secretive nature and preference for remote habitats, they are notoriously hard to study. So researchers found another way to assess Bicknell’s Thrushes on the Dominican landscape. By combining GIS information (such as forest cover, elevation, and slope orientation) with field surveys, biologists were able to create a model to identify the most important female Bicknell’s Thrush habitat. Their results indicated thrushes were most common in dense forests around 600 meters (1,900 ft) in elevation.

Fog settles in the rolling valleys of the Reserva Zorzal, a new reserve in the Dominican Republic dedicated to preserving winter habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush. Photo by Charles Kerchner/Zorzal Cacao.

The researchers used this model to find private lands that were available for purchase and also fit the criteria for prime Bicknell’s Thrush habitat. They keyed in on the site that would become the new preserve–a 1,000-acre abandoned farm located between existing protected areas along the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range.

“Based on our results, this available property looked like it had all the ingredients,” said Kent McFarland of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, one of the lead researchers on the project. McFarland said there was some habitat left for thrushes on the farm, while other areas could be reforested. Importantly, McFarland said portions of the farm were suitable for growing cacao (for chocolate) as a sustainable farming operation.

After the preserve was established, a field survey of the property detected Bicknell’s Thrushes in nearly 50 percent of the survey points.

“We were very pleased at the number of thrushes that have been found on the new reserve in these fragments of forest,” McFarland added. “It bodes well for increasing numbers as the forests regenerate more, a great sign of hope for us.”