The western chat-tanager is another of the high mountain birds of Hispaniola, considered by some as one of the most threatened species on the island. The name of its genus, Calyptophilus, means “one who loves to hide.” This name was surely inspired by its shyness and tendency to skulk in thick vegetation, making it particularly difficult to observe. The western chat-tanager has a long, straight tail not unlike a Mockingbird; its upperparts are chocolate brown while its underparts are mostly white. It has a dull yellow fringe on the bend of its wing, and a bright yellow spot in front of its eye that is revealed only when the bird is under stress or acting aggressively.
The western chat-tanager can be distinguished from its sister species, the eastern chat-tanager (C. frugivorus), by its larger size and paler coloration, as well as by its lack of an eye ring. Precious little is known about the habits or distribution of either species. Confounding things further, they were long classified as a single species (C. frugivorus), so many of the early records for the two species are mixed. However, as their English common names suggest, their distributions differ. While the western chat-tanager resides in the high mountains of Massif de La Hotte, Massif de la Selle and Sierra de Bahoruco in southwestern Hispaniola, the eastern chat-tanager is found further east, in the Cordillera Central, Sierra de Neiba and Sierra de Martín García.
Aided by sturdy legs and feet, the western chat-tanager forages mostly in low shrubby vegetation on or near the ground. Although it has been reported as low as 750 meters in elevation, it ranges up to 2,200 meters in the higher mountains, preferring cool, humid forests with dense vegetation. Its melodious song consists of numerous repetitions of chip-chip-swerp-swerpswerp or chirri-chirri-chirri-chip-chip-chip. It can be heard all year, most reliably at dawn. Its call is a sharp, percussive tink-tink-tink that often signals the birds’ presence, lurking in the thick vegetation. The western chat-tanager’s nest, first discovered and described in 2002, is a bulky, coarsely-built affair. It is partially-domed, typically placed 1 to 1.5 meters above the ground in very thick vegetation.
“One of the best songsters in the Republic.” James Bond
Nest materials include sticks, green stems, leaves, vine tendrils, mosses and lichens. The eggs are light blue, speckled with brown. The western chat-tanager is currently considered vulnerable to extinction according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and as Endangered by the Dominican Republic’s Red List. This chat-tanager’s near exclusive dependence on one of the most threatened habitats on the island – the high humid montane forests of Hispaniola – makes it particularly vulnerable to extinction. For this species and many others, it is urgent to protect and restore what remains of these forests, especially in Sierra de Bahoruco, the only place where the western chat-tanager is found in the Dominican Republic.