La Selle’s thrush was unknown to science until 1927, when bird expert Alexander Wetmore discovered it in the thick forest bellow Pic La Visite, Massif de La Selle, in southern Haiti. It would be another 44 years before it was found in the Dominican Republic, high in the Sierra de Bahoruco. For Anabelle Stockton de Dod, to see for the first time “this black bird, with its chest glowing like embers” in the middle of a lush forest full of orchids, ferns and mosses covered with droplets at dawn was a dream come true. Today, many scientists and birdwatchers continue to dream of seeing La Selle’s thrush. Although other localities are now well-known in the Dominican Republic, this bird can still be a challenge to find, due to its shyness and preference for dark, dense forests.
La Selle’s thrush is a medium-sized thrush, with charcoal-black upperparts, a deep reddish-orange breast and an orange beak. A red-orange ring surrounds each of its dark eyes. Its legs are dark, in contrast to those of the island’s other resident thrush, the red-legged thrush (Turdus plumbeus). In the mountains of the Cordillera Central and Sierra de Neiba, its back is more olive green than charcoal, one of the characteristics prompting its classification as a separate subspecies.
La Selle’s thrush is a high mountain bird, usually found from 1,400-2,100 meters of elevation in dense cloud and humid broadleaf forests, or amidst broadleaf shrubs in the understory of pine forests. As with other Turdus, or robin-like thrushes, La Selle’s thrush walks on the ground as it forages for invertebrates. It typically searches small openings on the forest floor, pausing abruptly and tilting its head from time to time before capturing its prey, or proceeding. It also eats wild berries, helping to disperse seeds, and thereby maintain and restore the forest. At dawn’s first light, this thrush occasionally forages in the open on road trails, offering exceptional viewing opportunities.
“Then from a stream came a sound that challenged the author to describe it. Clear, rich, melodious notes emerged from the deep throat of a bird. The glorious sunlight touched the color of its breast, like a living candle, and the thrush sang several times.” Anabelle Stockton de Dod
“In the dark shadows of its haunts its colors merge so perfectly with its background that it is extremely difficult to see at any distance except when in motion.” Alexander Wetmore and Bradshaw H. Swales
Its nest, a thick cup of moss, is built in a shrub or small tree. Its call is a soft and slow warble of pleasant notes of various tones. Each dusk and dawn, this forest thrush calls tu-re-oo, deep and clear: tu-re-oo, pausing deliberately between phrases. Fragmentation and loss of its dense forest habitat compel both the IUCN Red List and the Dominican Republic’s Red List to list this species as endangered. Across the island, agricultural expansion, cutting trees for firewood and charcoal production are destroying its unique forest habitat. This is a tragic loss, as these special mountain forests of Hispaniola also are home to a rich community of resident and migratory birds, many of them also threatened and endangered. Today, La Selle thrush’s habitat occupies only small discontinuous forest patches and narrow forest bands bounded by pines or the bottoms of dry ravines. In the 1970s, perhaps Mrs. Stockton de Dod already foresaw their uncertain future, when she wrote: “May our thrush always find a place to live in pur country!”