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The Plight of Haiti's Cloud Forest Birds

In the midst of political unrest, an expedition to one of Hispaniola's last remaining forests

Cloud forest, Massif de la Hotte

Photo by Eladio Fernandez

"Isn't there a new advisory about how women shouldn't travel to Haiti—something about kidnappings and ransom?" I asked my intrepid companions on the night before our flight to Haiti. We were undertaking the first ornithological expedition into the country since the mid-1980s; Haiti's volatile politics had discouraged field biologists from working there for years. Our research team had a vested interest in my participation, since all hands would be critical to make this expedition a success.

"Huh? Nah, we don't know what you're talking about," was the unanimous response from the others.

So the next day, I found myself on a plane to Port au Prince, Haiti, with our team—two biologists from the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences—director of Conservation Biology Chris Rimmer, and my husband, Jason Townsend—as well as Eladio Fernandez, nature photographer, and Jesus Almonte, trusty field assistant. It was Fepuary 2004, and I was a second-year Cornell graduate student with a mission to collect the first genetic samples from Haitian birds.

The endemic Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager

Photo by Eladio Fernandez

Our ultimate destination was Massif de la Hotte, the far-southwestern mountain range of the island, which supports one of the last remnants of cloud forest in Haiti. Until about 2.5 million years ago, the Massif de la Hotte was separated from the rest of Haiti by a deep, wide sea channel, which resulted in a hotbed of endemism in its plant and reptile communities. Massif de la Hotte is also home to the endemic Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager. My goal was to assess the evolutionary uniqueness of the birds of Massif de la Hotte, in hopes of pinging the attention of the ornithological community to the drastic conservation measures that will be necessary to protect it.

Our host was Philippe Bayard, a Haitian philanthropist who has recently initiated a conservation nonprofit organization, Societi Audubon d'Haiti. He widely introduced me as "the Cornell DNA expert," praise which I accepted with a modest bow of the head, and secret delight. It was a title that irked Jason, given my true position as a lowly graduate student.

We left Port au Prince for Massif de la Hotte at 3:00 a.m., hoping to travel the most dangerous tracts of highway before the city awoke. In recent days, these roads had been blockaded by angry mobs with the apparent aim of abducting and ransoming political figures. As we crossed the country along the rutted road, we saw no birds at all. Trees were few, and invariably they were fruit trees—the only trees more valuable than charcoal. As we approached Massif de la Hotte, people from entire villages stood by the road to watch us pass. Naked children ran after our car, yelling "Hallo, hallo, hallo, hallo. . ." but stopped and looked down shyly when I waved and called back.

On the first day at Massif de la Hotte, we set up our 25 mist nets in the 10-acre fragment of forest near the field station. The density of birds in this fragment was astounding, possibly because there was nowhere else for them to go. Rufous-throated Solitaires, Western Chat-Tanagers, Narrow-billed Todies, Hispaniolan Emeralds, and Hispaniolan Spindalises sang everywhere and collided with our nets. The endemic Gray-crowned Palm-Tanagers, oblivious to their fame and their precarious population status, were squawking with enthusiasm from seemingly every tree, dropping low to inspect us as we passed, and diving into our nets. We raced up and down net lanes from dawn to dusk, disentangling endemic birds, and found ourselves working long into the night with flashlights.

Many of the porters chose to carry the 60-pound expedition packs on their heads. The difficult hike to Plane Boeuf passed through steep and deforested terrain.

Photo by Andrea Townsend

We had to hike to our second site, Plane Boeuf, relying on 25 local porters to help carry the gear. We chopped through mats of razor-vine with machetes to put up our nets. The razor-vine sliced through my cheek and arms, which (I imagined) looked pretty cool. Though this fragment was larger than the previous one, the birds were less dense, the catch lower. Moods grew tense, tempers flared. I confess to one bleak moment, when, after a long day, the dinner was one of fried Spam, not very palatable, since I am a vegetarian. Still, there was something magical about the nights, sitting among the porters by the firelight, learning some Creole, and passing around the only delicacy I had to share—Hall's cough drops.

On the last ornithological expedition to Plane Boeuf 20 years ago, it had been a stronghold of parrots and Hispaniolan White-winged Crossbills. That expedition had led to the publication of a long list of conservation recommendations, none of which have been enacted, and all of which apply even more urgently today. We did not detect parrots in 2004 but, happily, Chris Rimmer did see them on his subsequent trip in 2006.

When it was time to return to Port au Prince, we flew out of Massif de la Hotte from the gleaming airstrip of a private airport, newly constructed for the use of then-president Jean Bertrand Aristide. It was surreal amid the desperate poverty. As we flew over the landscape of Haiti, I was shocked that I could count each tree below as we passed, one by one. Although the plight of the high-elevation birds in Haiti is desperate, I am troubled by the thought that the status of the low-elevation birds is even worse.

The author takes a blood sample from a Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo.

Photo by Andrea Townsend

The day after we left Haiti, all flights out of Port au Prince were halted because of the intense political unrest. Within the week, Aristide had been removed from power. Several months later, we received news that in the chaos following the overthrow, the field station at Massif de la Hotte had been burned down and some of the park guards had been killed.

More than two years have passed since I left Massif de la Hotte. I do not know what is happening there now. I have little hope that the current powers-that-be are aware of the situation at Massif de la Hotte, or are taking the drastic measures necessary to protect it, given the profoundness of other issues that plague Haiti. I can only continue to work in the lab on my genetic samples, and hope that they will give me a good story to tell. One day, I plan to return to Haiti as a real "DNA expert," to ping back information to them about their birds. I hope that there will still be birds left there to study, to enjoy, and to conserve.

Andrea Townsend is a graduate student in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program.


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