The following pages provide a detailed account of a week-long visit to one of the most picturesque, hospitable and easily accessible islands in the whole Caribbean. They give an up-to-date summary of where best to search for every endemic species and local speciality, and in particular give details of where to see the Puerto Rican Parrot, a species which was for so long a frustrating enigma, but is now relatively easy to find at Rio Abajo State Forest.
Puerto Rico is a comparatively small Caribbean island, with an east coast to west coast dimension of approximately 180 km and a north coast to south coast dimension of approximately 65 km. This makes the island roughly the same size as Devon and Cornwall in the UK, or Massachusetts in the USA, but spite of its small size, it manages to pack in some magnificent scenery, a variety of habitat types and a tremendous amount of local character.
With the closest of ties to the USA, Puerto Rico also enjoys first-class travel infrastructure, some truly superb accommodation and an overall easiness-of-travel which is reassuringly reminiscent of a visit to North America; make no mistake however, although inextricably linked, this isn’t simply a Caribbean state of the USA!
As a consequence of its compact nature, even the shortest of trips can encompass all of the key birding sites, while a week-long visit facilitates a very relaxed tour of this seductively picturesque and laid-back island. Even though our trip was by no means a full-on birding experience, and consisted of an itinerary taking in various cultural attractions to entertain a largely non-birding wife, I still saw all of the island’s endemics (with the exception of Puerto Rican Parrot) within the first three days. As the Parrot is now quite easy to find at Rio Abajo, it would seem perfectly feasible to target and find every single endemic in a well-planned birding-focussed three-day window.
Puerto Rico’s key birding locations consist of the richly forested and rather wet uplands of El Yunque in the east and the adjacent coastal lowlands on the fringes of the mainland, the latter playing host to a couple of scarce hummingbirds. The dry lowland forests of Guanica and Cabo Rojo in the southwest of the island, plus the adjacent mangroves, will feature on the itineraries of every visiting birder, while an hour’s drive inland gives access to the high forested ride of Maricao, from my experience the finest birding site in the country.
New to the the list of essential birding destinations is Rio Abajo, an extensive area of scenic forested limestone hills in the central-western region, which provides some excellent birding opportunities and easy access to a reintroduced population of Puerto Rican Parrot. If White-tailed Tropicbird is also on your target list, a visit to the clifftop promontory west of Quebradillas will also need to be slotted into the itinerary.
Our complete itinerary was as follows:
Day 1 Flight from Gatwick to San Juan, drive to Fajardo. Accom: El Hotelio, Fajardo
Day 2 El Hotelio grounds, Los Croabas, Humacao, El Hotelio. Accom: El Hotelio, Fajardo
Day 3 El Hotelio, El Yunque, Yauco, Guanica. Accom: Mary Lee’s by the Sea, Guanica
Day 4 Guanica, Maricao, Sabana Grande, Cabo Rojo, Guanica. Accom: Mary Lee’s by the Sea, Guanica
Day 5 Guanica, La Parguera, Guanica. Accom: Mary Lee’s by the Sea, Guanica
Day 6 Guanica, Rice Tech Pond, Guanica, Ponce, Rio Abajo, TJ Ranch. Accom: TJ Ranch
Day 7 TJ Ranch grounds, Quebradillas, Arecibo, TJ Ranch. Accom: TJ Ranch
Day 8 TJ Ranch grounds, Cueva Ventana, San Juan. Flight from San Juan to Gatwick
Day 9 Arrive Gatwick
For a UK birder, some Caribbean winter sun is a great lure, and hence we opted for a January visit; it is no coincidence that this was also the month at which the most economical Norwegian Airlines fares could be secured! A winter visit did mean that Lesser Antillean Nighthawk has not yet arrived in its breeding quarters and it also meant that Caribbean Martin was very thin on the ground, in fact so thin on the ground that we failed to see one. Anyone wishing to see both of the above species is advised to visit through the spring and summer months.
The primary driver for our trip to Puerto Rico was, without doubt, the introduction of the Norwegian Airlines direct flight from Gatwick to San Juan at the unfeasibly low price of £375 per person. In comparison, all other UK scheduled services have a connection in the USA which hugely increases both the cost and travel time involved.
Note that the Norwegian Airlines Gatwick to San Juan service only operated once per week, on a Saturday, at the time of our visit, however a Wednesday flight has since been added to the schedule. I would thoroughly recommend the Norwegian Airlines service to anyone. The aircraft used is a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which offers state-of-the-art cabin comfort and features such as increased cabin pressurisation, which genuinely make for a much more comfortable journey.
An ESTA visa waiver application is needed before travel, in exactly the same manner as mainland USA. The driving is easy work, if a little congested around the larger towns and cities, and English is spoken pretty-much throughout the island, which is a great bonus if directions are required. We used a combination of Tomtom and roadmaps for navigation which worked fine, in spite of reading complaints of difficulty in finding some birding sites, by others, before we departed.
We hired our car from Alamo, a company which has become our rental firm of choice on a succession of recent USA trips. They were cost effective, dependable and very efficient in their service. Our chosen vehicle type was a ‘mid size SUV’ and the Kia Sportage which we selected from the line of potential vehicles proved to be a great choice; it is one of the very few SUVs to come equipped with a roll-out luggage cover, something very useful when touring with baggage and belongings. Although not essential in Puerto Rico, a high clearance vehicle was useful at a number of sites, in particular the badly maintained track up to El Hotelio. It is also worth asking to have an ‘auto-toll’ inclusion with your car rental agreement, which permits the use of the drive-through gates at the numerous toll booths and thus avoids long queues; the fees simply land on your credit card at a later date.
One of the things which made our trip such a huge success was the quality of accommodation used on our short tour. On the eastern slopes of El Yunque, El Hotelio offered a wonderfully scenic location, with great forest birding right on the doorstep, and lovely spacious rustic rooms. Organisation could have been a little better, but did not detract from our enjoyment.
Our self-catering chalet at Guanica, part of the ‘Mary Lee’s by the Sea’ complex, was simply outstanding. Separated from the sea-front by a quiet cul-de-sac road, it still offered great coastal views, a spacious and extremely tastefully decorated interior and absolutely everything one needed for relaxing self-sufficiency. Using the gas barbeque on a balmy Caribbean evening was a real delight to savour.
By pure fluke we saved the best until last, the totally unmissable TJ Ranch experience, close to Rio Abajo. Just a stone’s-throw from the nature reserve home of the island’s rarest endemic bird, the ranch nestles in a beautiful forested valley with views of rugged limestone peaks in every direction. With just three double chalets on site, early booking is advisable, in order that you may enjoy some of the finest hospitality the world has to offer. Joan will welcome you and cater for your every requirement, while Tony will entertain you with tales of New York from a bygone era, and cook you some of the tastiest food imaginable.
Pre-trip information was gleaned from a mixture of some excellent trip reports available on the Cloudbirders website, plus the invaluable eBird range map resource. A big personal thank you also goes out to Clayton Burne, Gerlinde Taurer, Andrew Kinslow and Julio Salgado, all of whom provided invaluable information in advance of my trip, particularly with regard to Puerto Rican Parrot at Rio Abajo. Strangely, information is very scant with regard to this site, in spite of it providing some first class birding and the only real opportunity to see Puerto Rican Parrot anywhere on the planet.
Although a birding circuit of Puerto Rico is quite straightforward, with sufficient advanced planning, Julio Salgado offers both tours and a bespoke guiding service which come highly recommended.
Saturday 23rd January
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a wonderful aeroplane, and Norwegian Airlines certainly run a very professional show. In fact the hour delay leaving Gatwick isn’t actually Norwegian’s fault, it’s a knock-on effect of the heavy snowstorms which have engulfed the northeastern coast of the USA. Owing to the late departure it is, however, close to 18.00 when we finally conclude our nine-and-a-half-hour trans-Atlantic flight, at the modern and efficiently-run Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.
Immigration and baggage-handling are a breeze, and soon we are standing in the warm tropical air, selecting our Alamo rental car from a line of SUVs. We opt for a Kia Sportage, something of a venture into the unknown, but the brand-new vehicle is very comfortable, well equipped, has great ground-clearance, and even comes with a roll-out parcel-shelf to cover up our kit.
Luis Muñoz Marín is located just to the east of San Juan, which is very handy as our first night’s accommodation is at the far eastern end of the island. The Tomtom guides us through the complex intersections and along modern multi-lane highways, past high-level hoardings advertising McDonald’s, KFC and Walmart, in an urban landscape which could easily be anywhere in the USA.
The real fun starts when we leave the Route 3 at Fajardo, and become reliant upon our printed maps and the written directions supplied by the hotel, as we know that the satnav cannot recognise our destination. Following a couple of wrong turns and a few anxious moments, we spot a sign to ‘El Hotelio’ and know that we are on the right track. Heeding the advice of the painted direction boards we climb steeply on a single-track road that becomes progressively more pot-holed, as it weaves up the hillside.
Three-hundred metres above sea level we finally pass through the tall iron gates which give access to the El Hotelio estate, then sweep round to the parking area adjacent to the large rustic hotel, set in lush forested grounds. Making our way through to the veranda, the establishment initially appears deserted, but Teri, who transpires to be one of our fellow guests, saves the day by both calling Rafael, the owner, and rustling up a cold beer!
Rafael Jnr eventually appears, hands us some keys, and we let ourselves in to our fine, spacious room, where bags are deposited and we hit the sack. The temperature is perfect at our high altitude retreat and as we drop off to sleep we are serenaded by the orchestra of tree frogs, which reside in the surrounding forest.
Sunday 24th January
The effects of jetlag ensure that I am awake bright and early, in fact my 05.00 emergence from the room allows me to fall directly into owling mode, as the sun doesn’t rise until 07.00 in this part of the world. I have in fact been listening to purring Puerto Rican Screech Owls since before I climbed out of the bed, and at least two birds clearly have territories adjacent to the hotel.
It takes a little while to figure out the lie of the land in the darkness, but potential birding access is available along the main access road and its various offshoots, plus a well-maintained walking trail which zig-zags down the steep hillside. So I have plenty of owling options, and two-or-three sporadically-calling birds in my sights, but it soon becomes apparent that Puerto Rican Screech Owl is no walk-over!
In my experience of the Megascops genus, birds either fall into the category of ‘fly straight in to a recording’ or, conversely, ‘forget the iPod’, and this fellow certainly seems to fit the latter mould. And so the next two hours drift by with a cat-and-mouse exercise of much stumbling around in the dark, lots of cursing and a totally unacceptable view of an owl in flight, spooked by an exploding pigeon as daylight begins to illuminate the mountainside.
With first-light comes a whole new world of birding excitement, however, as a marvellous dawn chorus commences and immediately begins to test my recollection of the bird calls I have tried to memorise over the last few weeks. Black-whiskered Vireo is the first daylight bird to hit the list, and the repetitive call notes of this species are set to become a ubiquitous feature of our time on the island.
Numerous Red-legged Thrushes haunt the trail and access road in the half-light, while the prize of first tick goes to the juvenile Puerto Rican Oriole seen right beside the hotel. Pearly-eyed Thrasher and Puerto Rican Loggerhead Kingbird follow in hot pursuit, around the perimeter of the swimming pool which, in the daylight, boasts fantastic views down to the turquoise Caribbean waters, some three hundred metres below.
A walk back down the access road hits a birding jackpot as Puerto Rican Tanager, Woodpecker and Bullfinch all fall within a matter of seconds! All three are much-wanted prizes, with the oddly lethargic tanager likely to be elevated to monotypic family status in the near future, the bloody-stained woodpecker being perhaps the most visually impressive endemic and the bullfinch possessing one of the most charismatic calls to echo through the island’s forests.
Scaly-naped Pigeons are a common bird here, constantly clattering from treetops or scooting high overhead, and it also becomes apparent that the Bananaquit is set to be the most commonly encountered bird on the island. A quick trot back down the walking trail produces a very welcome Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo, a typically ungainly beast which flops through the low branches, and a Ruddy Quail-Dove which bursts up from the trail in a flurry of warm rufous wings.
A tally of seven new birds, including six endemics, isn’t a bad inaugural Puerto Rican pre-breakfast kick-off. Back at the lodgings, Vic has abandoned the thought of an early-morning swim due to water-temperature issues, but we are able to savour a tasty continental breakfast and soak up the lush forested environment with stunning Caribbean views from the open dining-area.
The plan is to spend the day in the vicinity of the coast, at the eastern extremity of the island, so after dining we pack our things and take the bumpy road back down-slope, under a rather overcast sky, which has been spitting with drops of warm tropical rain since I first left the confines of the hotel. Retracing our steps back to Fajardo, we cross the Route 3 and continue northeast, passing marinas lined with luxury yachts and then wind through low scrub-covered hillsides before reaching the small coastal town of Las Croabas.
Here, our directions lead us straight to the local police station, close to which a pair of Puerto Rican Orioles display vocally on the overhead telephone wires. Our focus is not the local constabulary, however, it is the group of Jacaranda Trees on the opposite side of the road. With flowers reminiscent of cascading pale-pink wisteria, we soon learn that any group of these trees will be a focus of local hummingbird activity, and it is therefore wise to brush-up on your horticultural knowledge prior to a trip.
Two male Antillean Crested Hummingbirds are vying for territorial possession of this important nectar source and regularly chase around the treetops or hover delicately beside the blooms. Magnificent Frigatebirds soar overhead, Greater Antillean Grackles abound in the coastal habitat, as do Zenaida Doves, and the first of the commonly encountered Grey Kingbirds appear on overhead wires. Green-throated Carib fails to materialise though, so we work our way to the coast, where more Jacaranda Trees play host to another male Antillean Crested Hummingbird. This tiny hummer constantly raises and lowers his spiky crest, glinting with a dazzling emerald green hue as he turns in the light; viewed up-close, he rates as the hummingbird star of the island.
Happy with our lot, and confident that the local Green-throated Caribs have lost the battle of possession to their crested rivals, we head for the beach. The local community is beginning to converge on the picnic tables behind the strip of yellow sand and waving palm tree leaves, and a very friendly atmosphere predominates, as we turn down several offers to join picnicking Puerto Ricans for a snack! At The House of Pestelillos we savour some wonderful Puerto Rican hospitality, an experience which is set to be a theme throughout the next week, and enjoy a lively atmosphere plus our first taste of Papas Rellenas. These balls of mashed potato are filled with seasoned beef and deep fried, being something of a local delicacy which really hits the spot!
To walk off our meal we take a stroll through the palms and along the sand, briefly entering the dry woodland to the west of the beach. Here more Pearly-eyed Thrashers lurk in the shade, though I fail to see my first singing Adelaide’s Warbler as the iPod has been left back at the car during this ‘domestic’ section of the day.
When a huge tropical downpour sees the picnickers running for cover, we conclude that it’s our cue to head for the next site and make our way into Fajardo town. A brief circuit of the colourfully planted grounds of the Fajardo Country Inn Hotel, famed as another hummingbird site, fails to produce a single hummer; in hindsight the habitat here isn’t ideal, as the gaurdy blooms which adorn the flower beds seem unlikely to be nectar producing species and there isn’t a single Jacaranda Tree in sight.
So we join Route 3 and head south for thirty minutes, to the town of Humacao, where we take the exit which gives access to Humacao Nature Reserve. After a quick shop for breakfast fare for the next day we continue east, towards the coast, before a speculative halt at a particularly large and flower-laden Jacaranda Trees instantly produces the much-anticipated Green-throated Carib hummingbird.
Humacao Nature Reserve is something of a conservation area-cum-local recreation site, with a crowded car park and several well-attended picnic areas. Initial thoughts are that this doesn’t look conducive of a productive birding site, but we soon discover that the locals are very much concentrated around the entrance, leaving the mangroves and coastal lagoons, which lie beyond, largely deserted.
The main purpose of the visit is to locate a Caribbean Coot, and it doesn’t take long to find a fairly distant pair happily preening on the far side of Laguna Palmas; the Norwegian Airlines tight weight restrictions had meant that a telescope was omitted for the trip and I had feared that coot identification may be a challenge, but this is certainly not the case. Our walk along the mangrove-lined bund which divides Laguna Palmas from the larger Laguna Santa Teresa I is uninterrupted by any other visitors to the park and we enjoy several more male Green-throated Carib hummingbirds, a handful of Northern Waterthrushes, some photogenic Mangrove Cuckoos and another close-up pair of Caribbean Coots.
With all the key target birds safely in the bag, we decide to omit a visit to the dry forest closer to the coast in favour of an early departure back to El Hotelio. The journey back along the Route 3 gives views over the forested peaks to the northwest, which make up El Yunque National Park, and are shrouded in some inhospitable-looking low cloud; we cross our fingers for some fairer weather at this site the following morning.
Although we enjoy our time at El Hotelio, there is definitely a ‘Fawlty Towers’ air about the establishment. The organisation could be a little slicker and the owner, Rafael Snr, has a reputation for taking a no-nonsense approach with his guests, but we warm to the experience and enjoy a great evening with Teri and Don, our new Canadian friends. Following much beer, wine and an excellent meal of spiced minced beef, fried plantains and rice, Vic retires to bed and I set out into the humid night, to even the score with the Puerto Rican Screech Owls.
After a couple of false starts I eventually work my way to a side-shoot from the main access road, where a wonderful brown-phase Puerto Rican Screech Owl is finally tempted in to a recording. A dark face contracts with pale eyebrows and spectacles, making for one extremely smart little owl, but he’s not too keen on photos and although I’m very pleased to get my owl tick, I will have to work a little harder to obtain the definitive image.
Monday 25th January
With a rather full day ahead we rise early, pack our bags then depart from El Hotelio for the final time. On this occasion, when we reach Route 3 we head west, back towards San Juan, in the busy rush-hour traffic. After just twenty minutes on the main road, a large brown sign tells us that it is time to turn off to El Yunque National Park, and almost immediately we begin to climb, through an increasingly forested environment.
There is no official entrance gate, and as we are too early for the visitors’ centre staff to be in residence we continue upwards, into the park proper. Compared with the low secondary forest in the vicinity of El Hotelio this is another world, where the winding road ascends between huge, high-canopied trees, dense stands of giant bamboo and past the drooping fronds of elegant tree ferns; it is as beautiful a tract of primary forest as you will find anywhere.
Our impromptu breakfast stop is made in the small parking area at Km 7, where we eat our muffins and sip our orange juice, in spite of the interruptions of a juvenile Puerto Rican Oriole, a pair of colourful Puerto Rican Spindalis and a frenetically active Puerto Rican Emerald hummingbird; not a bad start to the day!
Well-fed and with a couple of new birds already bagged we continue up-slope, with the park still virtually devoid of any other visitors. We are only the second car to take a space in the Big Tree Trail parking lot, and immediately set off on the concrete path which winds down the valley side and between the vast trunks of towering forest giants. The first birds to be encountered are Puerto Rican Bullfinch and Tanager, within the first few hundred metres of the trail. We continue for another half-an-hour, but the further reaches of the Big Tree Trail seem to descend into the deeper, darker recesses of the valley; it’s very atmospheric, but not at all birdy.
Returning to the main access road, we descend a short distance to the Yokahu Tower, where more visitors are beginning to congregate. Here, Vic unfurls her sketchbook and I set off back uphill, for a spell of roadside birding in the sunshine which is now bathing the lush, green forest. Red-legged Thrushes, and a pair each of Puerto Rican Woodpeckers and Loggerhead Kingbirds are noted, plus a gorgeous little Northern Parula, though the highlight is without doubt my first Puerto Rican Tody encounter. These unique little gems are always a delight, buzzing with feisty character and sporting dazzling colours which illuminate the forest understorey. Three separate individuals are noted during my short walk, in what is clearly some preferred habitat for this star bird.
Visitors are now starting to flock to the Yokahu Tower and we deem it time to make our retreat, with a stop at the roadside stalls inside the park providing ‘elevenses’ of our favourite Papas Rellenas. Before leaving the park it seems only fair that we call at the visitors’ centre and pay our fee, though the fact that the entrance kiosk is on the side road to the centre and not the road into the park itself seems a little bizarre. Even more bizarre is the interpretation signage posted around the small loop trail, where we note Puerto Rican Tody, Bullfinch, Loggerhead Kingbird and Lizard Cuckoo during a rapid circuit of the stoned path.
The large modern visitors’ centre building actually houses very little of interest, other than some immaculately clean toilets, so at around 13.00 we plug in the Tomtom and set off on the longest journey of the trip, to the far southwest of the island. First challenge is the negotiation of a busy downtown San Juan, though once we have cleared the commuter-filled freeways the journey becomes much more pleasant, with a fine multi-lane motorway conveying us effortlessly through a surprisingly well-forested landscape of high rolling hills.
Although the island’s main multi-lane highways are well maintained, with the use of most of the principal routes incurring a toll charge, some of the local driving techniques leave a little to be desired. There is no recognition whatsoever of a ‘slow vehicles in the inside lane’ policy, and hence a banana-laden pickup plodding slowly along in the outside lane, accumulating a huge tail-back of traffic, is an all-too-common occurrence!
Eventually the turquoise-blue waters of the Caribbean reappear between the last row of hills and we sweep down onto the dry coastal plain, where fast, straight roads soon deliver us to the town of Vauco, at which we plan to stock up on provisions for the next three days of self-catering. It has only taken us two-and-a-half hours to complete the longest planned journey of the trip; Puerto Rico just gets better and better!
A big grocery shop in a foreign land is never as straightforward as expected, and even locating Vauco’s vast shopping mall is a little taxing. We then criss-cross the aisles of Mr Special, slowly filling our trolley with a mountain of food, beer and wine, before hitting a check-out where the liberal use of huge numbers of plastic carrier bags is quite shocking for us UK bag-tax disciples.
Just a couple more junctions westbound on the Route 2 and we are at the turn to Guanica, where we skirt the small town and then take the coast road which follows the dividing line between the low dry forest and the inviting blue Caribbean waters. Following our directions, we take a side road with a sign post for ‘Mary Lee’s by the Sea’ and are soon being shown to the apartment which will be ours for the next three nights.
Our downstairs accommodation is the ‘Sirena 2’, a wonderfully spacious, cleverly designed and imaginatively decorated home-from-home, which is equipped with everything one would ever want for a perfect self-catering vacation. With a sea-view veranda out front and a huge modern gas barbeque out back, we are delighted with our choice, however I am anxious not to linger too long, as it is getting late in the day and I have my sights on one last tick before darkness falls.
Leaving Vic to enjoy the new surroundings, I head back through Guanica town, and then the village of Maria Antonia, to arrive at the entrance of Guanica Nature Reserve about half-an-hour before sunset. It is just fifteen minutes gate-to-gate, with the gate at this end being the padlocked entrance to the protected coastal forest.
The reserve closes late in the afternoon, so evening visits have to be made on foot, which is no hardship after a good few hours at the wheel. A tarmac road leads steadily upwards, flanked by dense low shrubbery, from which Adelaide’s Warbler sings and Mangrove Cuckoos cackle. After climbing more steeply and rounding a couple of hairpin-bends I reach the allotted spot, where I settle down in position and watch an orange sunset unfold over the dry landscape below.
Puerto Rican Nightjar was first described from bones found in ancient cave deposits and a single specimen taken in 1888. For much of the Twentieth Century it was considered extinct, the single specimen being the last remnant of a ‘prehistoric’ bird, and its rediscovery in 1961 was therefore the source of much Caribbean ornithological excitement; it can only be assumed that it had been overlooked due to its largely nocturnal habits and a lack of survey work carried out within its very localised range of dry coastal hills.
At precisely 18.30 the first ‘whip-whip-whip’ of a Puerto Rican Nightjar echoes across the hillside and I jump to my feet. The bird is relatively close, and a narrow side-trail fortunately leads in the correct direction. Following the stony track and I am soon just a few metres away from a bird which is calling from within the dense brushwood. A quick burst from the iPod causes the bird to spring from his hidden perch and then glide right over my head in the half-light; easy!
Getting decent views of a bird on the ground proves to be a little more tricky, however, and it takes several minutes of repositioning and squeezing past thorny bushes, back at the main access road, before I can set my bins on a small portion of a second calling bird which refuses to budge from his well-concealed perch. With the island’s second endemic nightbird safely in the bag, I trot back down the access road to the sound of a distantly purring Puerto Rican Screech Owl and with a celebratory beer at the forefront of my mind.
Back at Mary Lee’s the barbeque is lit, steak and sausages are soon browning and a couple of glasses are raised to another great day on an island which is rapidly becoming one of our favourite recent destinations.
Tuesday 26th January
After a civilised, if early, breakfast we hit the road for a big day out in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico. After taking the Route 2 west for a couple of junctions, we exit at Sabana Grande and then head north, on a minor road that zigzags steeply up the limestone escarpment on which sits the famed Maricao National Park. It takes just forty-five minutes to reach the forest from Mary Lee’s, and the wet roads serve to demonstrate that we are fortunate to be blessed with a beautifully sunny morning for our visit; it has clearly been raining heavily just a few hours earlier.
From the top of the relatively narrow spine of forested hills, which form the backbone of the park, we savour spectacular views all the way down to the Cabo Rojo promontory, our planned destination for later in the day. At Km 16.2 we turn into the entrance road to the park headquarters, where we are the only visitors, and are warmly welcomed by a little huddle of staff who have congregated next to the administration buildings.
One of the rangers tells us to head up towards the transmitter station to find the best birding, and it is at 08.00 on a wonderfully warm and sunny morning that we begin our march uphill. The site is, without doubt, one of the most birdy of the trip and over the next two-and-a-half hours on the gravel trails, which traverse the dense low forest, we amass a superb haul of sought-after endemic birds.
The Green Mango hummingbird appears several times, and a couple of individuals alight for long enough to allow close scrutiny of plumage detail and bill shape, which can be compared with the neighbouring Puerto Rican Emeralds. Puerto Rican Tanagers are relatively numerous here, but the undoubted star is the Elfin Woods Warbler, a diminutive ex-Dendroica which was new to science as recently as 1968. It seems incredible that such a distinctive and charismatic species could remain undiscovered until a few decades ago, but this bird does have a tiny range and some very specific habitat requirements.
It transpires that Elfin Woods Warbler is not uncommon in this particular corner of Maricao Nation Park, however, and even allows some reasonable photographic records to be obtained of its distinctive black-and-white form, with dark face and pale cheek-patch, broad white wingbars and well-streaked white underparts; for me it’s the best bird on the island.
Puerto Rican Vireo is first heard, and then lured in to a recording, but subsequently several more appear, often in mixed species flocks, and Maricao lives up to its reputation as the prime site at which to see this distinctive little bird. Pearly-eyed Thrasher, plus Puerto Rican Bullfinch and Woodpecker are all noted, but it is the appearance of Puerto Rican Pewee which causes the next excitement. This attractive little flycatcher is dark above with warm, peachy underparts and has been highlighted on my hitlist as one of the more elusive of the island’s bird species; we only record it at Maricao.
An Antillean Euphonia pops up all-too-briefly, then melts back into the greenery, almost certainly one of a family party, however a search of the dense bushes draws a blank. We are very pleased with our morning’s work, however, and return to the car, where we drive a short distance west to the small pull-off at Km 16.8. From this point one trail leads up and another leads down, so I take the low road and in less than an hour have filled the notebook with records of Puerto Rican Pewee, Emerald, Woodpecker, Vireo and Tanager, plus the exquisite little Elfin Woods Warbler.
Birding complete, we begin to retrace our route back to Sabana Grande, pulling in a brief stop at La Torre de Piedra viewpoint, where Puerto Rican Loggerhead Kingbird hunts from the adjacent treetops as we study the view. From atop the old stone tower one can get a great feel for the local topography, as the lush green slopes of Maricao sweep down to a broad flat, largely agricultural plain which stretches towards the southern coastline. Before the land meets the turquoise Caribbean Sea, an unexpected bumpy dividing line of low, rounded hills spring up and run parallel to the coast; it is these hills that support the unique dry forest which is home to the Puerto Rican Nightjar.
By the time we have followed the switchback road all the way down to Sabana Grande our hunger pangs need pacifying and just as we enter the magnificent Mercado’s Bakery, the heavens open to unleash a huge tropical downpour. For the next hour we sample scrumptious made-to-measure hot sandwiches, washed down with top-class coffee, and cannot resist concluding with a slice of heavenly cheesecake, carefully selected from the mouth-watering array of freshly-baked wonders.
Fully revitalised, we hit the road again, travelling first west on the Route 2, and then south towards Cabo Rojo, with the majority of the journey done in torrential rain. Thankfully, as we leave the main road and pick our way through the smaller villages en route to the coast, the grey clouds depart and we are again under a blue sky, as I drop off Victoria at the car park below Cabo Rojo lighthouse. The plan is for the artist to spend a couple of hours at what is undeniably one of the most scenic spots on the whole island, whilst I shoot back to Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuse, in order to hunt for a few remaining dry-forest specialities.
Its only a ten-minute drive to Cabo Rojo NWR, back past the salt pans and mangroves, then inland a little to where a long tarmac driveway leads me to the large modern research facility and visitors’ centre which serves the refuge. To my great disappointment the lady at the desk tells me that I will need to be out of the security gate by 16.30, or risk being locked in, and it is already 15.30 in the afternoon!
So I have three target birds to secure, it’s a raging hot afternoon in the dry forest habitat, and I have just an hour at my disposal; that’s quite a challenge! Predictably, Adelaide’s Warbler is common here, and is heard from the car park. Just a few seconds after setting off on the stone trail, which meanders through the flat landscape of sparse trees and withered grassland, I am enjoying my first views of this delightful little warbler. With blue-grey upperparts, sulphur-yellow belly and broad loral stripe, plus contrasting white wingbars, Adelaide’s Warbler serves to prove once again that this large and far-flung family never fails to disappoint.
Initial excitement over, and with no time on my hands to loiter with the camera, I march onwards, scouring the bushes and constantly trawling with a couple of select recordings. In the heat of the late afternoon very little is moving, save a handful of colourful Prairie Warblers and a smattering of Common Ground Doves. I have just reached the observation tower which marks the end of the trail and turned to commence my march back, when a response to the iPod is finally heard and soon a pair of Puerto Rican Flycatchers are buzzing me from the low, bare branches. Rarely have I been so relieved to see a Myiarchus, as this genus rarely features in one’s top-ten hitlist, however it is a bird which is clearly much more tricky to find than its alleged ‘common’ field-guide-status implies, and this pair turn out to constitute the only record of the trip.
After allowing myself a little photographic indulgence, a quick check of the watch reveals that the park closing time is looming large and a step up in pace is required. With just one more target bird needed, it is supremely ironic that I have reached the very last group of ornamental bushes, before the car park, when a Caribbean Elaenia finally pops up in response to my recording; three-out-of-three in just one hot hour!
Keen to avoid being trapped behind the substantial security gate, I immediately head back towards the Cabo Rojo headland, though the journey is interrupted when a large flock of Icterids is sighted in the mangroves, which divide the coast road from the Pole Ojea salt flats. A quick U-turn has me in position to scan through the assembled crowds of Greater Antillean Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds, until a couple of more daintily-proportioned individuals are located. They proceed to reveal contrasting yellow covert-patches as they preen; Yellow-Shouldered Blackbird thereby hits the list and my penultimate Puerto Rican endemic is secured!
Anxious to be back at the lighthouse on time, I only take a brief look through the congregation of wading birds on the margins of the salt pans, where Black-winged Stilt, Lesser Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpiper are all recorded in three-figure numbers. Rendezvousing at the Cabo Rojo headland car park at the allotted hour, we spend the last hour of the day walking the trails around the stunningly picturesque landscape and iconic lighthouse building, with Brown Boobies wheeling past orange-tinted cliffs and another three-or-four Caribbean Elaenias frequenting the isolated shrubs which dot the heathland.
The journey back to Guanica is a particularly scenic one, passing through a mixture of agricultural land, rolling coastal hills and small settlements, then at Guanica town we head south along the now-familiar PR 333 coast road. Passing through the dry forest in the twilight, we note the distinctive call of Puerto Rican Nightjar at the Km 2.9 and 5.2 markers, though the lure of the barbeque prevents us from loitering.
Back at Mary Lee’s we re-enact the fine culinary performance of the previous evening, with our barbequed steak and sausages being consumed on the veranda, against a backdrop of moonlight twinkling in the Caribbean Sea. As my lack of a definitive screech owl image is still nagging at the back of my mind, post-meal I take the opportunity to go for a little drive in search of a cooperative owl. After drawing a blank on the rather wind-swept coast roads to the east of Mary Lee’s, I take a speculative drive towards the outskirts of Guanica where, as I navigate a side street, I catch a few notes of Puerto Rican Nightjar call through the open car window.
Parking up the car, my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and I am surprised to find that two birds are calling from an area of scrubby forest bordered by houses, grazing land and a large industrial unit; these birds are clearly not as fussy about habitat requirements as literature would have us believe! It is also very apparent that one of the birds is extremely responsive to playback, no doubt a function of the fact that it has never before been molested by birders with iPods. So after a few reshuffles of position, some patience and more than a little luck, I tempt a Puerto Rican Nightjar to land on a low power cable for just long enough to secure one definitive image. It’s been quite an amazing day.
Wednesday 27th January
With all endemics within striking distance now secured, there is a little head-scratching to be done with regard to where best to focus my early-morning birding hours today. Having neglected the highly regarded dry forests of Guanica, or the Bosque Estatal de Guanica, to give the site its official title, I plump for the fifteen-minute drive around to the park entrance, which had played host to my first Puerto Rican Nightjars two evenings previously.
Following the winding entrance road uphill and onto what appears to be something of a plateau in the unchanging dry forest scenery, I am the first person to park beside the visitors’ centre. There is no-one around to either pay an entrance fee or ask advice, so I wander off on a likely-looking trail and see what I can find.
The gravel track slowly climbs, then slowly descends, cutting through dry and largely leafless trees, with only a slight variation in habitat and tree height as I walk for several kilometres. The birding is fairly predictable, with Adelaide’s Warbler being in constant ear-shot, plus Pearly-eyed Thrasher and Puerto Rican Bullfinch regularly hopping into view. And alongside a few Puerto Rican Todies and Lizard Cuckoos, that is about as good as it gets for the next two-and-a-half hours, on what I am fairly sure are the Velez and Fuerte Trails. I secure a few nice photographs in the bright morning light, but have to admit a feeling of disappointment at this site, and also being very relieved that my short time in the dry forests of Cabo Rojo was so productive during the previous day.
Ducking out earlier than expected, I exit the park gate in favour of spending a little time around the exotic blooms adorning the well-kept gardens in the little town of Maria Antonia, which abuts the western boundary of the reserve. I am still lacking my final Caribbean hummingbird target and hope that this may be a good area in which to search, but it is still a major surprise when the first garden I check hosts a pair of Antillean Mangos! The hummers don’t hang around, and I actually spend more time explaining myself to the intrigued local residents, but I feel that I have turned around the morning’s lacklustre birding experience in one fell swoop.
By means of celebration I stop at a well-stocked roadside fruit stall to procure our lunchtime dessert, in the form of an enormous, sweet-smelling pineapple, before returning to Mary Lee’s. After sharing a brew and catching up on the contrasting morning’s tales of birding and illustration, we trot down to Mary Lee’s office and en route come face-to-face with another male Antillean Mango, who is guarding his own Jacaranda Tree from a low, exposed perch. I rush back for the camera and secure some of my favourite hummingbird images ever, as the Mango spreads his wings and tail in preening contortion, all without a plastic sugar feeder in sight!
Next we load up the car with snorkels and towels, to head a short distance east in search of a suitable bathing venue. It transpires that the stiff onshore breeze has blown up too much of a swell for snorkelling, so we simply swim in the warm Caribbean surf for an hour, as the waves crash on rocky limestone promontories or rush up the white sand of the beach, which we have entirely to ourselves; the experience really rates as one of the most exhilarating of our trip. Late lunch back at Mary Lee’s consists of cheese-and-onion sarnies and fresh fruit salad, made with the most wonderful fresh pineapple we have ever tasted.
Following a brief siesta we head out west, with La Parguera in our sights. The small coastal town is less than half-an-hour away, and we soon find the local hardware store which has been made famous in countless birding trip reports. The shopkeeper who runs the store feeds the birds at a table squeezed onto a sheltered corner of his yard, adjacent to a small park which acts as a noisy focus for the local skateboarding fraternity. It is here where we eat our ice creams, purchased as a goodwill gesture in the store, and wait for a Yellow-shouldered Blackbird to join the hordes of Greater Antillean Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Collared Doves, which are devouring the freshly-distributed breadcrumbs.
Compared with some reports which we have read, involving dozens of visiting blackbirds, our count of just three birds in an hour-or-so of watching is very poor. Perhaps breeding cycles could be to blame, but anyway, it only takes one good pose to secure your photo and with Yellow-shouldered Blackbird safely assigned to the memory card we set off on a walking tour of La Parguera.
A strip of mangroves fronts the coast to the west of the town, where a couple more Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds are noted and where interpretation boards talk of the West Indian Manatees which frequent the offshore waters. We don’t find any of the said manatees, and when we venture to the east we are confronted by a particularly unappealing concrete-and-neon, music-pumping, tourist-touting enclave, which soon has us running for the car!
Back at the sanctuary of Mary Lee’s we batten down the hatches for our last night, as the sea-breeze has whipped-up in strength, the owls are likely to be subdued, and we have plenty of good food and wine to consume before our departure for pastures new.
Thursday 28th January
eBird is my favourite trip-planning resource, and reference to its pages has revealed that Masked Duck, one of my top Neotropic bogey-birds, has recently been seen at a pond, just half-an-hour’s drive from Mary Lee’s. So I tip-toe to the car, just as the first light of day is picking out the ridges of the limestone hills, to head a little way west, before turning inland and onto a maze of narrow farm tracks.
The flatlands of the coastal plane, just northwest of Guanica, are used for rice cultivation. Access to the fields, for the huge tractors which carry out the ploughing, sowing and harvesting, is via narrow unpaved tracks, which are deeply rutted and test the Kia to its limits. One of the first birds to be seen in this land of wide open spaces and huge horizons, is a gorgeous male Merlin, of the dark-grey-backed columbarius race. In a manner atypical of any Merlin I have ever seen before, he is hunting dragonflies from a fence-post perch, just like a Hobby back home. A huge gathering of hirundines are catching insects over the agricultural land, but try-as-I-might, I cannot pick out a Cuban Martin from the masses of Barn and Cave Swallows which criss-cross the fallow rice fields.
My destination is a tiny rectangular pond, not much larger than a tennis court, which is surrounded by a raised bund and clearly has some form of irrigation purpose. I drive up onto of the bund, with fingers crossed, to be greeted by a few startled Black-crowned Night Herons and a pair of White-cheeked Pintail. After another half-an-hour’s wait, which reveals a lone American Gallinule in the thick water-side vegetation, but nothing at all with a mask, I head back for breakfast, resigned to the fact that Masked Duck will have to wait for another day in another country.
After a fruit salad and toast feast it is time to depart from our much-loved Mary Lee’s by the Sea, and travel just a short distance back east, to the city of Ponce; the week-long itinerary didn’t really permit a prolonged visit to old San Juan, we have opted for Ponce as the location of our Puerto Rican cultural injection.
The Tomtom does us proud, in negotiating first the modern highways which encircle the historic old town, and then the narrow streets which radiate out from the Plaza Las Delicias, where we miraculously drop onto a metred on-street parking space. The Plaza is the hub of the old quarter, being home to both the imposing Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Guadalupe and the unmistakably striking red-and-black form of the Museo Antiguo Parque de Bombas. The latter building was the city’s fire station for over a century, but is now a museum and undoubtedly one of the most iconic buildings in all Puerto Rico, painted in alternate blocks of black and red.
Las Delicias is also home to some very famous lions, life-size statues of the city’s symbol painted in outrageously bright designs by local artists as part of the ‘Roaring Art in the Plaza’ exhibition, and now on permanent display. The grid of streets around the Plaza are lined by imposing neoclassical frontages, with much of the architecture modelled on Barcelona; some buildings are well-maintained, whilst a few are falling into grand neglect, in scenes reminiscent of Havana.
Needless to say, Victoria buries her head in her sketchbook for a couple of hours, whilst I wander with the camera, both of us recording the architectural wonders of this very appealing city. There is even a little birding to be had, as the blooms in the Plaza are attracting a steady stream of Antillean Mango hummingbirds.
After a Plaza-side drink it’s time to head north, as the day’s itinerary has allowed enough time for a pop at the final remaining endemic on the island. The Route 10 carries us rapidly north on a good two-lane carriageway, until it abruptly ends just to the north of Adjuntas. This comes as quite a shock, and it appears that the government simply ran out of the funds to complete the middle section of the road, as the piers which were built to carry the next section of raised carriageway simply rise into the sky and now carry a coating of moss. All the motorway traffic is diverted onto a winding single-lane road, to snake through the lush forest, with vehicles often reduced to a snail’s pace.
After ten kilometres-or-so of forest-crawling we re-join the northern section of the completed Route 10, and not much further on spot a left turn to Rio Abajo State Park, our destination for the late afternoon period. The scenery in this region of Puerto Rico is the most spectacular we have seen to date, with mighty orange-washed limestone escarpments jutting above the forest greenery at regular intervals in a deeply undulating landscape.
The Rio Abajo road is largely enveloped within the forest canopy, however, preventing us from admiring the view, but still marvelling at the habitat as we pass between occasional small settlements, spectacular towering trees and magnificent clumps of giant bamboo. Our journey ends at a locked steel barrier which precludes vehicular access further into the forest, and here we park up beside the campsite and begin our walk into the atmospheric forest of the State Park proper.
Puerto Rican Oriole moves through the mid canopy and a pair of Puerto Rican Woodpeckers call loudly as they feed in the highest branches of what is actually secondary forest; the only large tracts of primary forest remaining in Puerto Rico are at El Yunque. Puerto Rican Tody also enlivens the twenty-minute walk to the large fence and security gate, which bring a halt to any further progress along the paved road.
Back in 2007 there were just 18 Puerto Rican Parrots in the wild, all at El Yunque; the remainder of the population had died out due to habitat destruction, with El Yunque holding the only surviving wild birds since the 1940s. For years the biologists considered that because El Yunque was the last area in which the parrot survived, then it should be the centre of reintroduction efforts. And for years the birds struggled to increase in numbers, as the incredibly wet and humid environment interfered with egg incubation and increased fungal and bacterial diseases in both eggs and nestlings. The young often died of hyperthermia and adults fell prey to the numerous Red-tailed Hawks.
Slowly the realisation that El Yunque is actually the worst place in Puerto Rico for the endemic parrot came to the fore. Although the wet mountains had always been an important source of the fruit, flowers, seeds, bark and leaves on which the parrots feed, they would have historically nested in the drier and less humid coastal regions, and simply commuted to El Yunque to feed; the real reason that the parrots became confined to El Yunque was that there was simply nowhere else to go.
Therefore, after years of frustration, the scientists decided to try another reintroduction site, in the rugged terrain of Rio Abajo. Puerto Rican Parrots had disappeared from this site, which is much warmer and drier than El Yunque, in the 1920s when the primary forest was cleared. Dense secondary-growth woodlands now existed at Rio Abajo, however, and it was considered that they could support a new population of parrots. The first birds were released in 2006, and by 2015 it was estimated that as many as 134 birds were living in the wild, with at least 69 having fledged from wild nests.
And this is why we find ourselves at the gates to the Jose L Vivaldi Memorial Aviary, on this hot and sunny afternoon. All is quiet in the high canopy, however, so we follow our alternative directions and loop around a side-trail which delivers us to a cutting through the dense forest, through which a high voltage electricity cable is hung on high steel pylons. By positioning myself right below one of the towering steel structures I am afforded a great view of the forest in two directions, and hence have a high chance of viewing any mobile parrots.
I have only been waiting at my vantage point for twenty minutes, when the distinctive raucous calls of Amazona parrots announce that my quarry is close at hand, and a couple of minutes later a flash of bright-green and cobalt-blue bursts into view, as three Puerto Rican Parrots hurtle across the clearing, calling madly as they fly; my final endemic is in the bag!
I wait a little longer and two more birds fly across the open area, which is clearly a great place to view parrots in the otherwise impenetrable forest canopy. With a spring in our step we make our way back to the security gate, where at least four more Puerto Rican Parrots are now squawking their way from tree to tree, as if to reinforce the fact that this species is very much alive and well at Rio Abajo.
Returning to the car, we recheck our directions and set off on the short drive to our accommodation for the next two nights, TJ Ranch. Our chosen route takes us back under the Route 10 and into the most beautiful limestone valley, with the man-made Lago dos Boca at its base and with rugged rocky peaks emerging from lush green forest on all sides. We descend to the concrete dam which holds back the lake, then take the narrow crest road past several intently concentrating local fishermen.
To the east of the dam we climb steeply upwards, through dense secondary forest which is periodically broken by small settlements and their associated agricultural land, until we finally see a signpost to TJ Ranch. At the end of a long driveway is an electric gate, which grinds to an open position in response to a toot of our horn.
Nestled within a lush, green, forested valley, TJ Ranch is flanked by spectacular limestone ridges on all sides. Our hosts, Joan and Tony, deliver the warmest possible welcome, handing us drinks in the open dining area and giving us a spontaneous tour of the kitchen, where Tony is already hard at work on the evening’s cuisine. They are both native New Yorkers, but descended from Puerto Rican stock, and have been running the guest ranch for the last fifteen years, in which time they have clearly honed the term ‘hospitality’ to a new level.
We are shown to our rustic chalets, of which there are just three doubles in total on the ranch, for a quick spruce-up before dinner. The lobster and local fish which we are served in the open dining area are cooked to absolute perfection, then we enjoy wine and beer with the other guests as Tony recites a succession of enthralling anecdotes in his broad and addictive New York accent.
As the evening wears on, several Puerto Rican Screech Owls begin to call from the surrounding forest, and I leave Vic laughing with Angel and Wendy, the sixty-something New Jersey honeymooners, while I set out with spotlight and iPod. Following a brief flight view of a rather unresponsive owl next to the restaurant, I strike out onto the access road in the hope of better luck. And it is here that my fortune finally does turn, as I track down a calling Puerto Rican Screech Owl to his roadside perch, stumble through a pile of loudly-crunching brushwood and just manage to fire off the definitive full-frame shot before the owl departs!
After a little further searching and a few more images of a slightly more distant bird, I call it quits, content that my Puerto Rican birding goals are all but satisfied.
Friday 29th January
Without a single target bird remaining in the forests, it’s time to act like this is a holiday. My pre-breakfast birding consists of a stroll around the TJ Ranch grounds, where no less than seven endemics are either seen or heard, in the form of Puerto Rican Screech Owl, Emerald, Woodpecker, Bullfinch, Loggerhead Kingbird and Oriole, plus Adelaide’s Warbler. Mangrove Cuckoo and Sharp-shinned Hawk are additional bonuses of a very enjoyable hour, then it’s time for the most scrumptious cooked breakfast to be delivered to the table, from Tony’s impeccable kitchen.
Suitably fed, we somewhat reluctantly tear ourselves away from the homely confines of the ranch, to take the Route 10 northbound. We first head towards Arecibo, before striking out to the west and the more rugged coastline which predominates in this section of the island. Unaccustomed to the busy roads, it is something of a surprise to find ourselves in heavy traffic, which is constantly held back by red lights, and it is 11.30 by the time we take the turning which delivers us to the small cliff-top car park at the western end of Quebradillas.
The site is called The Parque el Merendero, and simply consists of a car park and a few paths cut through the coastal scrub to give access to various vantage points and seating areas, above a high rocky promontory. The cliffs are several hundred metres high at this point, affording views far out over the Caribbean Sea, but we are not here to admire the view.
Soon after stepping out of the car, though a gap in the trees, we see the distinctive white form of a White-tailed Tropicbird drift past, and thus my final Puerto Rican target bird, plus my final tropicbird for the full set, is added to the list. Having saved the easiest one until the last, we spend the next hour admiring these superbly elegant seabirds, as they chase above the dark turquoise waters, paired up and apparently in full courtship mode. The viewing from the clifftop is excellent, with pairs of birds coming as close as one hundred metres from our vantage point and often at eye level; thankfully this further vindicates my decision to leave the telescope at home!
A clifftop picnic follows, involving some locally sourced sandwiches, before we head east to explore the coast in the vicinity of Arecibo. It is soon apparent that the historic Arecibo Lighthouse has been transformed into a children’s theme park, so we continue east along the coast road, in search of an undisturbed stretch of beach. It doesn’t take long to find a suitable length of coarse golden sand to call our own, with an outlook of rolling Caribbean breakers and a backdrop of waving palm trees; with all possible ticks secured it really isn’t a bad place to while away a few hours in the afternoon sunshine.
Returning to TJ Ranch there is time for Vic to take a dip in the pool while I explore the grounds a little more, though we ensure that we are in the restaurant in time to enjoy some last-night-cocktails in anticipation of another amazing meal; Joan certainly makes a pretty mean Mojito! Vic orders a blackened fish steak while I opt for the octopus, both of which are served with mofongo, a local culinary delight of mashed plantain, fried with garlic. And the unanimous verdict is that we have just consumed the very best meal of the whole trip.
It is somewhat cooler tonight and this seems to have caused the local screech owls to fall silent. It is also a great excuse to forget the camera for once, and indulge in a great evening of drinking and storytelling with our captivating hosts and New Jersey friends.
Saturday 30th January
Today’s early morning ranch-birding-session adds Puerto Rican Tody and Broad-winged Hawk to an impressive list, which now stands at eight endemics in just a couple of hours of very casual birding. A tiny Puerto Rican Emerald nest in a low palm frond is another bonus, then it’s time for another of Tony’s magnificent breakfasts, and very sadly our last.
Bags packed, it is time for some very fond farewells, to a wonderful couple who really do feel like lifelong friends after just a couple of days experienced in their company; our time at TJ Ranch has to rate as one of the most enjoyable stays we have ever had, in all our travels.
Our next port of call is just twenty minutes to the north on the Route 10, at the Cueva Ventana, a series of natural limestone caves which have been turned into a guided tourist attraction. We pay our fee and join a group of twenty local visitors, to be handed hard hats plus torches, and set off along a forest trail to the hidden entrance of the cave. The guide gives a well-informed narrative of the sites geology and history, pointing out some fascinating and still largely unravelled ancient cave art, as we pick our way through the beautiful underground caverns.
The second cave system is undoubtedly the most interesting, as it is deeper, darker, and is home to several hundred bats of several different species. The first roof-space hosts roosting huddles of Jamaican Fruit Bats, and it is impressive to see how the guide only uses a red-lensed torch to point out the cave’s resident mammals, in order to avoid unnecessary disturbance; one young Jamaican Fruit Bat has sadly become detached from its mother and forlornly clings to the jumper of one of the guides.
Squeezing through some rather narrow gaps in the worn limestone, we enter the final chamber which contains an opening out onto the Río Grande de Arecibo valley, in the form of the most amazing ‘window’. The jagged outline of the limestone opening acts as a dark frame to the stunning view, which looks down on the valley floor several hundred metres below, where a wide river meanders through the lush green valley floor and is backed by high limestone escarpments.
Our guide tells us that Greater Bulldog Bats are resident in this section of the cave, and after a little searching in the darker recesses of the ceiling we manage to find a little huddle of bats, directly above a tell-tale pile of fishy droppings on the cave floor. After grabbing a few high-ISO shots of Puerto Rico’s largest resident bat, it is time to head for the surface, and alas, to head back to the airport for our flight home.
San Juan is an easy drive away on the Route 22, which runs parallel to the north coast, and within a couple of hours we are returning our car to Alamo. We have clocked up just 723 miles in our supremely enjoyable tour of this most hospitable and relaxed destination, which has delivered enough birds, scenery, fine cuisine and first-class accommodation to delight the most discerning of travellers.
Notes on Key Target Species, Local Specialities and Endemic Races:
White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus catesby
Up to twelve birds seen from the clifftop vantage point in the Parque el Merendero, at the western end of Quebradillas on 29/01/16 (N18°29’26.8”, W66°57’02.4”). The peak in activity seemed to be mid morning, with birds dispersing further out to sea later in the day.
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
Eight birds counted at the headland adjacent to Cabo Rojo Lighthouse on 26/01/16, either perched on the cliffs or flying in the bay beyond.
Caribbean Coot Fulica caribaea
Two pairs of birds were present at The Reserva Natural de Humacao on 24/01/16 (park at N18°09’02.9”, W65°46’20.3”). All four birds were on Luguna Palmas, and in spite of identification fears due to the lack of telescope, they were well within species-defining range using binoculars.
Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus brunnescens
A single bird seen over TJ Ranch on 30/01/16.
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus venator
A single bird seen over TJ Ranch on 29/01/16.
Merlin Falco columbarius columbarius
A single bird hunting dragonflies over rice fields west of Guanica on 27/01/16.
Scaly-naped Pigeon Columba squamosa
A common bird in any suitable forest and seen in numbers at El Hotelio, El Yunque, Maricoa, Rio Abajo and TJ Ranch.
Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita zenaida
Seen at a number of widespread lowland coastal sites.
Puerto Rican Parrot Amazona vittata
Following the highly successful reintroduction project at Rio Abajo State Forest this bird, which was until recent times a frustrating enigma, is now easy to see at this site. Follow the access road west from the Route 10 until a locked barrier blocks the road (N18°19’50.1”, W66°42’24.2”). Park here and continue on foot for approximately 3km, to arrive at the security gate which bars access to the parrot breeding facility. We saw at least four Puerto Rican Parrots in the forest canopy around the security gate, both inside and outside the facility grounds, at 17.00 on 28/01/16.
Probably the easiest viewing area is along the power line clearing to the north of the parrot breeding facility, a feature which is actually visible on Google Earth. To reach this site, leave the main access road just south of the security gate and take the small gravel trail to the west at N18°19’53.6”, W66°43’03.6”. This trail loops around the western end of the breeding facility and passes below an overhead high voltage power line. Continue to the second power line crossing and at this point leave the gravel trail and follow the cleared line of the cable south to the huge steel pylon at N18°19’59.8”, W66°43’10.3”. Looking east from the pylon, along the power line clearing, we saw five birds fly across the open area between 16.20 and 16.25 on 28/01/16.
Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor
Pair seen and photographed, plus up to ten heard, at Laguna Palmas, Humacao, on 24/01/16, and a single seen at TJ Ranch on 29/01/16. Also heard at Guanica State Forest on 25/01/16 and 27/01/16.
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo Saurothera vieilloti
Up to five seen and more heard at El Hotelio on 24/01/02, heard at El Yunque on 25/01/02 and Maricao on 26/01/02, two seen at Guanica State Forest on 27/01/02 and four seen at TJ Ranch on 29/01/02.
Puerto Rican Screech Owl Megascops nudipes nudipes
One seen and photographed and up to six heard at El Hotelio on 24/01/16 and 25/01/16. Heard at Guanica State Forest on 25/01/16. Three seen, two photographed, and at least four more heard in the vicinity of TJ Ranch on 28/01/16 and also heard at the same site on 29/01/16.
Puerto Rican Nightjar Antrostomus noctitherus
Two separate individuals seen at dusk in Guanica State Forest on 25/01/16, close to the hairpin bend on the ascent from the entrance gate (N17°58’54.9”, W66°52’48.6” and N17°58’55.0”, W66°52’44.9”). Heard on the PR 333 at Km 2.9 and also at Km 5.2 at dusk on 26/01/16. Two heard and one seen very well and photographed on the outskirts of Guanica town at c23.00 on 26/01/16 (N17°58’18.7”, W66°54’06.2”).
Antillean Mango Anthracothorax dominicus aurulentus
Pair seen in Maria Antonia town on 27/01/16, in the garden of house number 69 on the PR 334, just downhill from Guanica entrance gate (N17°58’47.1”, W66°53’09.5”). Male seen in Jacaranda Tree close to Mary Lee’s Office on 27/01/16 (N17°56’55.6”, W66°52’34.9”). Three seen around the trees and flowers in Plaza Las Delicias, Ponce, on 28/01/16.
Green Mango Anthracothorax viridis
Two seen on the trails above Maricao State Park Headquarters on 26/01/16, in the general vicinity of N18°08’53.4”, W66°59’29.8”.
Green-throated Carib Eulampis holosericeus holosericeus
First seen in flowering Jacaranda Tree, beside the road from Humacao town to Humacao Nature Reserve on 24/01/16 (N18°09’02.6”, W65°46’49.1”). Two more subsequently seen on the same date in the mangroves adjacent to Laguna Palmas, Humacao NR.
Antillean Crested Hummingbird Orthorhyncus cristatus exilis
Only seen at Croabas on 24/01/16. Two males around flowering Jacaranda Trees at N18°21’55.0”, W65°38’02.0” and another male around the same species of tree at N18°22’15.4”, W65°37’55.0”.
Puerto Rican Emerald Chlorostilbon maugaeus
First seen at El Yunque on 25/01/16, a couple of individuals noted at Maricao on 26/01/16 and also several around TJ Ranch, where an incubating female was located on 29/01/16.
Puerto Rican Tody Todus mexicanus
A widespread species, with three individuals noted at El Yunque on 25/01/16, in the vicinity of Yokahu Tower and also the Visitors’ Centre Loop Trail; two at Guanica NR on 27/01/15; one at Rio Ajajo SF on 28/01/16 and two at TJ Ranch on 29/01/16.
Puerto Rican Woodpecker Melanerpes portoricensis
Widespread and often encountered in pairs. Two at El Hotelio on 24/01/16; two at Maricao on 26/01/16; four at Rio Abajo SF on 28/01/16 and heard at TJ Ranch on 29/01/16.
Puerto Rican Flycatcher Myiarchus antillarum
Surprisingly just one pair seen on the whole trip, at Cabo Rojo Nature Reserve on 26/01/16, close to the observation tower (N17°58’42.0”, W67°09’36.0”); described as a ‘common resident’ in Rafaele et. al. Very responsive to playback.
Grey Kingbird Tyrannus dominicensis dominicensis
Conspicuous and common, often noted perching on overhead roadside cables.
Puerto Rican Loggerhead Kingbird Tyrannus taylori
Relatively common throughout the island, with birds being noted at El Hotelio, Croabas, Humacao, El Yunque, Maricao and TJ Ranch.
Caribbean Elaenia Elaenia martinica riisii
A single bird was seen at Cabo Rojo NR, close to the Visitors’ Centre (N17°58’50.0”, W67°09’59.0”). Subsequently another pair plus a single bird were seen in the sparse bushes on the headland adjacent to Cabo Rojo Lighthouse.
Puerto Rican Pewee Contopus blancoi
Only seen at Maricao SF, with a single on the trails above the Headquarters (N18°08’44.0”, W66°59’29.0”) and a pair at the head of the Km 16.8 trail (N18°09’24.5”, W66°59’52.3”). None of the birds were calling, nor did they respond to playback.
Pearly-eyed Thrasher Margarops fuscatus fuscatus
Relatively common and widespread, especially in dryer forests. Noted at El Hotelio, Croabas, Guanica NR, Maricao SF, Cabo Rojo.
Eastern Red-legged Thrush Turdus ardosiaceus ardosiaceus
A fairly common and widespread species, noted in forested habitats at El Hotelio, El Yunque, Mariao SF and TJ Ranch.
Puerto Rican Vireo Vireo latimeri
Only recorded at Maricao SF, where it was easy to find on both the trails above the Headquarters and the Km 16.8 trail. Often vocal, and responsive to playback.
Black-whiskered Vireo Vireo altiloquus altiloquus
A common forest bird, with perhaps the most ubiquitous call in the island’s wooded areas. Noted at El Hotelio, Huamaco, El Yunque, Rio Abajo, TJ Ranch and probably several other places which I omitted to write down.
Elfin Woods Warbler Dendroica angelae
As with every other visiting birder, only noted at Maricao SF. Seen here on the trails above the Headquarters (N18°08’53.0”, W66°59’29.0”) and the Km 16.8 trail (N18°09’23.0”, W67°00’02.0”). Several others heard, with birds responding well to playback.
Adelaide's Warbler Dendroica adelaidae
A widespread endemic, decidedly common in dry forest habitats. Seen or heard at Croabas, Guanica, Cabo Rojo and TJ Ranch, plus several other obscure locations, including birds heard from the car whilst in transit.
Antillean Euphonia Euphonia musica sclateri
Single female seen at Maricao SF, on the trails above the Headquarters (N18°08’44.0”, W66°59’29.0”).
Bananaquit Coereba flaveola portoricensis
Perhaps the most widely encountered bird species on Puerto Rico, inhabiting all possible habitat types.
Puerto Rican Spindalis Spindalis portoricensis
Quite bizarrely, just two individuals seen in El Yunque, both from the small parking area at Km 7; surely a pure fluke, as most other birders seem to bump into them much more frequently.
Puerto Rican Tanager Nesospingus speculiferus
Only recorded at El Hotelio on 24/01/16, El Yunque on the Big Tree Trail on 25/01/16 and Maricao SF on 26/01/15. Not uncommon at the latter site.
Puerto Rican Oriole Icterus portoricensis
A juvenile in the El Hotelio grounds and a displaying pair on overhead wires at Croabas on 24/01/15, another juvenile at El Yunque on 25/01/16, a single at Rio Abajo on 28/01/16 and a pair in the TJ Ranch grounds on 29/01/16.
Greater Antillean Grackle Quiscalus niger brachypterus
Commonly encountered in large numbers throughout our travels around the island.
Yellow-shouldered Blackbird Agelaius xanthomus xanthomus
A pair on the Cabo Rojo peninsular, beside the Pole Ojea salt flats, on 26/01/15. The birds were in the company of a large group of roosting Icterids, gathering in the mangroves beside the road at N17°57’56.0”, W67°11’36.0”. At the classic La Parguera site on 27/01/16 we were surprised to find just five birds in our evening visit, three at the famous hardware store feeding station (N17°58’26.9”, W67°03’23.5”) and another pair flying over the mangroves between the store and the town centre.
Puerto Rican Bullfinch Loxigilla portoricensis
The call of this species was perhaps the most charismatic sound of the island, and was encountered daily in a variety of forest habitats. Recorded at El Hotelio, El Yunque, Guanica, Maricao, Rio Abajo and TJ Ranch.
Mammal Species Recorded:
Brown Rat Rattus norvegicus
One seen at Guanica, in the car headlights.
Greater Bulldog Bat Noctilio leporinus
Also known as ‘Fisherman Bat’, we saw a huddle of half-a-dozen roosting in a ceiling crevice close to the ‘Window’ at Cueva Ventana, above a pile of very fishy droppings (entrance at N18°22’44.0”, W66°41’19.0”).
Jamaican Fruit Bat Artibeus jamaicensis
Dozens seen at their roost site on the roof on Cueva Ventana, on 30/01/16, with a juvenile which had sadly fallen to the ground being seen up close (entrance at N18°22’44.0”, W66°41’19.0”).
Small Indian Mongoose Herpestes auropunctatus
This species was first brought to Puerto Rico from the Malay Peninsula in 1877, in an attempt to control the Black Rat infestation of the sugar cane plantations. One of many examples of Man’s misguided introduction strategies, it is now common throughout the island and plays havoc with native bird populations. We saw close to double figures of live animals, plus many road casualties.