Section 1. Introduction
These notes are intended to help other birders visiting Puerto Rico. Other peoples' reports are very helpful; these are just my own additions.
Much thanks to other birders who have posted reports about their experiences in Puerto Rico. We relied exclusively on their advice to plan our trip, and it was tremendously helpful. I have previously learned the value of hiring an expert guide when birding in an unfamiliar place and still believe in this as a rule. But in this case we did quite well without one. I
Particularly appreciated and relied on Martin Reid 2012, at http://maybank.tripod.com/Caribbean/PuertoRico-01-2012.pdf, and John Thomton 2012, at http://www.surfbirds.com/trip_report.php?id=2182.
I also used "A Birdwatchers' Guide to Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Caymans" by Guy Kirwan et. al. (2010) for general information, and "Birds of the West Indies" by Raffaele et. al. (2003) for our field guide.
I studied calls before our trip using "Cantos de Aves del Caribe" compiled by Mark Oberle (2008). Note this 3-CD set is simply a collection of recordings from Cornell's Macaulay Library. There is no commentary, discussion, or comparison between the calls. What I found helpful was to listen to each species' recordings, select what I thought were 2-3 best examples, then collect all of those snippets into one playlist of my 46 "most likely" Puerto Rican species. I then studied this much more condensed list, comparing similar calls e.g. the different Cuckoos against each other, the two Kingbirds vs. the Elaenia, etc. Having done so, I found that I could then go to an independent source of recordings, e.g. xeno-canto, and reliably identify randomly selected songs from these species.
Feel free to contact me. I'll be happy to provide more detail on anything, including more candid thumbs-up or thumbs-down on anything here. stevejohnson2 (at) verizon (dot) net.
Section 2. Location Notes
Following the advice of other birders, we spent a day or more each at 1) Vieques Island; 2) El Yunque (south side), and 3) Guanica; and spent an hour or two each around Fajardo, Humacao, Maricao, La Parguera, and Laguna Cartegena. We omitted other locations only because of limited time.
In general - we noticed a dramatic difference from the drier south side of the Cordillera Central to the moister north side. In retrospect I wish we'd spent a day or two along the north side, e.g. in the north part of El Yunque, or at Bosque Estatal de Rio Abajo. I would also like to explore a few likely-looking places not mentioned (to my knowledge) by others, such as 1) the area shown on Google Maps as the Laguna Cartegena NWR (south of route 305), which is disjoint from the area north of 305 which most birders seem to visit; and 2) the highest central regions of Vieques Island along the main roads.
Vieques Island - truly a peaceful respite from the crowded cities of the main island. Highly recommended if you want to have some off-the-beaten-path vacation time as part of your birding trip. Visiting Vieques only added White-Crowned Pigeon and Yellow Warbler to our trip list; however we did not really attempt to find any of the quail-doves. One of our maps showed a road continuing through the National Wildlife Refuge at the SW corner of the island, driving west from Esperanza, clockwise around the coast towards the NW corner. This is wrong - it dead ends at the beach. En route there, you do pass the locked gate mentioned in trip reports and Kirwan. We did not hike there because of limited time. The best map we found, both for beaches and birds, was the one at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service web site for Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.
Ferry - I had high hopes for pelagic birding along the 75-minute trip from the dock on Vieques to Fajardo. I spent the whole time glued to my binoculars. Nothing. Nada. This was the most bird-forsaken 15-mile stretch of ocean I've ever seen.
Fajardo - we birded at the Fajardo Inn grounds, and also attempted to go to flowering trees at coordinates in Kirwan's book, for hummingbirds. When I convert his coordinates into decimal degrees, I get 18.35253, -65.61944, which is offshore. My best guess was that he meant some trees along the coast near 18.35920, -65.62432. Our only hummer sp. in that area was Antillean Mango which we'd already gotten on Vieques. Very few flowering trees anywhere. However the Inn's grounds were indeed good for other birds.
Humacao - Same experience as others: At mid-day on a Friday this park was packed with people; we parked on the street outside and easily walked in. Good place for water birds. We only visited the "main" refuge (entrance at 18.15075 E, -65.77184 W), not the other one. Cross the bridges, walk counter-clockwise along the big pond/lagoon, etc.
Casa Cubuy - first of all, none of the trip reports adequately describe the SPECTACULAR view from the deck at this country inn / eco-lodge. It faces east across a lush river gorge running down (south) out of the mountains in El Yunque National Forest. With good optics you can bird the treetops of many acres of rainforest from a comfortable deck chair. Second, the food options (and times) are very limited. Breakfast is excellent, but is only served at one time, 9 AM, right when most of us want to be out on the trail. The only walking distance restaurant closes at 7PM, and it's a long windy mountain road down into town for groceries or other restaurants. There is a communal refrigerator where you can store food, so consider bringing some simple food with you up from town. Like Thomton (2012), we enjoyed a very productive non-driving day at Casa Cubuy, birding on well-marked trails which lead up into the Forest, and also lead horizontally around the gorge.
Guanica - the entrance gate to the state park (locked around 5PM daily) is approx located at 17.97959, -66.88125 W. As you drive East to it on route 334 from route 116, you encounter two forks; bear left at both. During the day, the ranger correctly advised me that the birding was better on the trails near his kiosk, at the circle at the end of the road, than along the Ojo de Agua trail mentioned by others. (I tried both.) The latter trail may be better at other times of year; it was quite dry when I was there, lots of brown leaves. (This was late in the dry season, so not surprising.) He also recommended visiting at 7AM (when he said they open the gate on weekdays) rather than 10:30 AM as I did. At night we parked at the gate and walked in 1/4 mile or so. Several PR Nightjars called; the first "whip"s occurred at 7:10 PM, 30 minutes after local sunset.
La Parguera - Reid's directions (2012) were perfect for the Yellow-Shouldered Blackbirds. Please patronize the general store (as we did) because they are helping us birders!!
Laguna Cartegena - Like others, we had difficulty finding the correct entrance. We approached from the east, driving west on PR 305. This road becomes extremely rough, filled with ruts which we could barely navigate. I will not describe here our accidentally illegal experience trying to get to the lake. I'll just say that 1) the ideal case (which we did not accomplish) is to drive to the west side of the locked refuge gate at 18.01034 N, -67.10888 W, and walk east from there to the observation tower, where Google Maps has "Observation Tower Road"; and 2) the east side of that locked gate is "inside". I don't know about the approach roads from the west or from the north, but 305 from the east is very rough.
Maricao - excellent birding along PR 120 in the Bosque Estatal, highly recommended. We had good luck at kilometer marker 16.8 (trails leading both uphill and downhill); and also walking on the trail uphill from the visitor center at 16.2; but all of the other pullouts along 120 seemed productive too. We did not have time to visit the (closed) Hacienda Juanita location.
Section 3. Species Notes
We saw and/or heard 14 of the 17 endemics; I ticked 75 total species for the trip; and I added 30 to my life list. Of our "misses", the oddest for me was the Puerto Rican Flycatcher - never saw or heard one.
Species you're likely to run into without making any special plans to find them: Magnificent Frigatebird, Common Ground Dove, White-Winged Dove, Gray Kingbird, Pearly-Eyed Thrasher, Bananaquit, Adelaide's Warbler, Black-Faced Grassquit, Greater Antillean Grackle.
Tropicbirds - we skipped the NW coast due to time constraints, but the White-Tailed T-birds did show up offshore (barely ID-able with 12X optics) from El Morro fort at San Juan.
Hummingbirds - all sp. were generally uncommon for us. In particular we searched hard for and dipped on the Antillean Crested, after looking all over Vieques and at 2 locations on the Eastern coast of the main island. Very few flowering plants while we were there except for bouganvillea and hibiscus. This may be because we were there late in the dry season. Best luck was at the few flowering trees we did find.
Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo - this species seemed reasonably common to us at Maricao. When I compare trip reports by Babic (Nov 2007), Brenn (Jan 2007), Reid (Feb 2012), Thomton (Apr 2012), and our own, it was found by 4/5 of the parties at Guanica and 3/5 at Maricao. I would add Maricao to the "reliably found" list of sites for PRLC in Kirwan's book.
Grey Kingbird - look at a couple of on-line photos before your trip and compare them with Loggerhead K. The drawing in Raffaele of the Grey K. is quite misleading, at least in my copy. I wasted a lot of time the first time I saw this very common bird because of that drawing.
Puerto Rican Vireo - study a few on-line photos ahead of time and be prepared. At first I thought this bird was a winter-plumage N. American warbler and I spent too many minutes studying it and looking in the wrong part of my field guide.
Puerto Rican Bullfinch - one of the shiest birds I've ever dealt with. We heard them all over the main island, and never got a solid ID look at any of them. I agree with other peoples' audio "handle" for this bird - it does indeed sound quite like a Northern Cardinal.
Section 4. Miscellaneous Notes
Bugs and insects: we used zero repellant and never had a problem all over the main island and Vieques, until our last two days, with a couple of minor bites both incurred at hotels near Guanica. This was probably because it was late in the dry season. I noticed that most professional birding tours to Puerto Rico are scheduled in late March or early April. I don't know if that's for bugs, or weather, or birds, or something else.
Driving a car on Puerto Rico is not bad. I found it similar to Ireland, and easier than Panama. Some of the highway directional signs are misleading or missing, the roads are much narrower, and some of the driving culture is different. Our iPad (working as a GPS) helped a lot. The total toll for using the automatic express toll pass (which came with the car) was $29 for 6 days on the main island, and did save time going through the toll plazas. The rental Jeep was a good choice for places like Laguna Cartegena and also Vieques NWR.
Telephone / Internet - we relied on AT&T 3G which worked in most places but not everywhere. Haven't gotten the bill yet....
Lodging - by far the best place we found was Casa Cubuy, in the southern rainforest slopes of El Yunque. We also very much enjoyed Mary Lee's By the Sea, a quiet and comfortable guest house near Guanica; and Tradewinds Resort, a quiet inn in Esperanza on the south coast of Vieques.
Non-avian species: Iguanas, mongooses.
Other touristy recommendation: visit Arecibo National Radio Observatory. Fascinating and unique, the largest single-aperture observatory of any kind in the world.
EY = El Yunque Nat'l Forest (south slopes near Casa Cubuy)
GU = Guanica (Bosque Estatal)
HU = Humacao Nature Preserve
LC = Laguna Cartegena (Observation Tower)
LP = La Parguera (general store west of town)
VI = Vieques Island Nat'l Wildlife Refuge
Blue-winged Teal - LC
White-cheeked Pintail - HU, LC
Ruddy Duck - HU
Pied-billed Grebe - VI
Magnificent Frigatebird - VI, HU, GU
Brown Pelican - VI, GU
Great Egret - VI, HU, LC
Snowy Egret - VI, GU
Little Blue Heron - VI
Tricolored Heron - HU
Cattle Egret - VI
Green Heron - VI, LC
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - GU
Glossy Ibis - LC
Turkey Vulture - HU, GU
Osprey - LC, GU
Sharp-shinned Hawk - GU
Red-tailed Hawk - all
Clapper Rail - GU
Purple Gallinule - LC
Common Gallinule - HU, LC
Caribbean Coot - HU, LC
Black-bellied Plover - VI, GU
Killdeer - VI
Black-necked Stilt - VI, GU
Spotted Sandpiper - VI
Laughing Gull - HU
Royal Tern - VI
Scaly-naped Pigeon - EY
White-crowned Pigeon - VI
Eurasian Collared-Dove - LP
White-winged Dove - all
Zenaida Dove - VI
Common Ground-Dove - all
Mangrove Cuckoo - VI, GU
Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo - GU, MA
Smooth-billed Ani - LC
Puerto Rican Screech-Owl - EY
Puerto Rican Nightjar - GU
Antillean Mango - GU
Green Mango - MA
Green-throated Carib - VI, HU
Puerto Rican Emerald - MA
Puerto Rican Tody - all
Belted Kingfisher - VI, HU
Puerto Rican Woodpecker - VI, HU, MA
American Kestrel - HU, GU
Peregrine Falcon - EY
Caribbean Elaenia - VI, GU
Gray Kingbird - all
Loggerhead Kingbird - EY, HU, GU
Puerto Rican Vireo - GU, MA
Black-whiskered Vireo - EY, GU, MA
Barn Swallow - VI
Cave Swallow - HU
Red-legged Thrush - all
Northern Mockingbird - all
Pearly-eyed Thrasher - all
Northern Waterthrush - GU
Yellow Warbler - VI
Prairie Warbler - VI
Adelaide's Warbler - VI, GU, MA
Bananaquit - all
Yellow-faced Grassquit - HU
Black-faced Grassquit - all
Puerto Rican Bullfinch - EY, MA
Puerto Rican Tanager - EY, GU, MA
Puerto Rican Spindalis - EY, GU, MA
Indigo Bunting - EY
Yellow-shouldered Blackbird - LP
Greater Antillean Grackle - all
Shiny Cowbird - GU, MA
Puerto Rican Oriole - EY
Venezuelan Troupial - GU
Antillean Euphonia - GU
House Sparrow - all
Bronze Mannikin - FA, HU