In July, 2017, my wife Lisa, I, and the other members of the group with whom we take vacations agreed that we would visit Puerto Rico in 2018. Two months later, on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico.
This is not an account of a dedicated birding trip; out of the week I really only took two serious half-day expeditions. Instead, it is intended to serve as a resource for birders contemplating a visit to the island and wondering as to the state of things in general, and birding prospects in particular, in the wake of a devastating natural catastrophe.
As resources I relied upon Raffaele et al., Birds of the West Indies; the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands bird identification app for the iPhone; and certain trip reports available on the Internet, most notably Ian Merrill’s account from January, 2016. The birding app came with recordings, which I used on very rare occasions to lure birds in to view, but which I refrained from employing when dealing with vulnerable or threatened species.
With regard to timing, I cannot recommend August for a birdng-devoted trip. The general reasons should be obvious, but I’ll offer a few specifics here. First, of course, the high heat and humidity start very early in the day. While I am used to birding in hot climates, this fact tends to restrict bird activity – and thus useful birding time – to the first two or three hours after sunrise, which is just after 6:00 p.m. I did not notice much recrudescence of bird movement in the later afternoon hours, probably owing to the fact that the humid heat tended to hang on well after dark.
Even if the heat did not dampen bird activity, afternoon birding would have been a difficult enterprise. Although the mornings were uniformly clear, the majority of the afternoons brought on intermittent thunderstorm activity that lasted for hours.
Also, with the breeding and fledging periods over, bird activity was depressed and birdsong in particular was at a low ebb. I also encountered relatively low responsiveness to bird call recordings, probably due to low hormone levels in the target species.
All that being said, given the limited time I had to devote to birding, Puerto Rico was fairly generous in yielding up its avian treasures. I hope this account will help others develop a reasonable idea of the condition of the island in the post-Maria era, and perhaps even to find some of the key target species, incluing elfin-woods warbler and, of course, the near-mythical Puerto Rican parrot.
Generally I will list a species only the first time I saw it during the trip, unless a further sighting was for some reason notable or of significantly improved quality. This will avoid tiresome repetition of references to such ubiquitous species as greater Antillean grackle or bananaquit. Life birds will be listed in all capitals.
Friday, August 10: Although we had originally reserved a flight during the day on Friday, JetBlue cancelled its daytime flight, so we were forced to fly overnight starting in early evening on Thursday. Our connecting flight from JFK was delayed so we did not land in Aguadilla’s Rafael Hernandez Airport, on the northwest extent of the island, until nearly 5:00 a.m. The airport proved a small and fairly efficient affair, so we were able to collect our bags and pick up the rental car (a Mirage wthout anything special in terms of clearance) pretty quickly. In the darkness we heard the killy-ka-dick of unseen Antillean nighthawks above, and the first birds we saw in the morning light were greater Antillean grackles.
Two of our friends had arranged with us to share a hotel suite for the early morning hours, bridging the time until we could get into the two-house rental property our group had secured. Due to the late arrival, Lisa and I did not reach the hotel until past 6:00 a.m. The sun had just risen. Although we were focusing – in our exhaustion – solely on finding the hotel, we noted that the scenery was not the devastation that had filled the newscasts a year earlier. There were no leveled buildings, no flooded roads or toppled telephone poles, no trees stripped of limbs or lying across the street. It appeared to be business as usual along the short stretch separating the airport from the hotel.
At the hotel I caught an hour’s sleep, but because we had not changed time zones, I found when I woke that I was unable to simply turn over and return to napping. It was about 7:30 a.m. and well after my usual waking time. Lisa was happily unencumbered by such problems, so I left her peacefully slumbering away and stepped out onto the stairway and balcony outside the room to see what was hanging around.
The hotel (named the Tropical Ramey Apartments) sat on the same road that ran past the airport. As I would later learn, not far down the road there was an extent of treed grassland, and, in fact, directly across the street from the hotel was a lush strip of woods. If you looked closely, some of the trees had broken tops, but these were mostly obscured by new foliage. A casual glance would have left you with the impression that nothing of significance had occurred there in 2017. The same was generally true of the buildings, which with few exceptions seemed undamaged. We did see some fences broken up during our time on the island, and a couple of buildings with wrecked roofs, but there was nothing dramatic to suggest that this was not the result of the ordinary tribulations of the Caribbean climate.
Around the hotel, Eurasian collared-doves were present here and there. I had seen woodpeckers in a tree across the road earlier when I did not have my binoculars handy, and even with unaided eyes I could tell they were the endemic PUERTO RICAN WOODPECKER, of which I would have a number of opportunities during the trip to get better studies of the dark heads and upper plumage, and blood-stained underparts.
A black-faced grassquit perched on a wire, giving its thin call, and then it was joined by a distinctive black-white-and-orange icterid, a TROUPIAL. These were fairly common in the northwest, and their black heads (with a small white marking around the eye) and large white wing patches became a familiar sight.
From the balcony I was able to look over the flat roofs of the neighboring buildings. Scanning these, I spotted a largish brown bird sitting on a coil of wire two roofs over. Its horizontal attitude, and its behavior lying on a flat roof in the daytime, signaled to me that it was a nightjar, and my suspicion was confirmed when I put my binoculars on the bird. The distance and its cryptic coloration defied specific identification (I did not realize at the time that there was only one likely suspect, common nighthawks not being summer residents of Puerto Rico) so I retrieved my scope and tripod from the hotel room. Through the scope, the bird resolved into an ANTILLEAN NIGHTHAWK, sitting as nicely and patiently as one could ask. I watched it as long as I wanted, and then turned to look over the trees across the road, where I found, to my surprise, a second nighthawk perched on a horizontal branch and in full frontal view. This, too, sat for examination as long as I wished; I even managed to get a decent picture through the scope using my cell phone camera, clearly showing the barred chest and underparts, closed eyes, and white collar.
Other more familiar birds around the hotel were white-winged doves (omnipresent in Puerto Rico), Northern mockingbird, loggerhead kingbird (also extremely common), the trusty old rock pigeon, and gray kingbirds (again, pretty much always around in the lowlans).
Eventually it came time to clean up and head to Aguada and the two-house property our group had rented. The grounds were on a road that led out of the town and along the coast for a ways, so where we were was primarily residential and not heavily trafficked. A wall with a gate separated the houses (and two small swimming pools) from the beach, which was fairly narrow and dense wet sand, neither the prototypical white sand paradise familiar to the Caribbean nor the garbage-strewn mess familiar to other parts of the Caribbean. The view out over the ocean was very pleasing and we would find that the sunsets, though uncomplicated and brief, were lovely and scenic.
There were some twenty-two of us – thirteen adults and nine children – which made for a fairly hectic atmosphere. After getting settled in and catching up with my friends, I slipped out to survey the small grounds and the beach and ocean just beyond. The first of surprisingly few magnificent frigatebirds wheeled about. Brown pelicans were constantly present just offshore, as were Sandwich and royal terns. The palm trees on the property hosted raspy-voiced pearly-eyed thrashers, and the first of many bananaquits appeared. Across the street in an open common area a pair of American kestrels frequently perched. Also, while we were eating, my friends called my attention to a onetime visitor – a juvenile yellow-crowned night-heron that stopped by the pool area briefly and then moved on.
Busy with other matters, I did not stay up to see what might be about in the dark hours, and Lisa and I made an early night of it, exhausted from the redeye flight and late arrival.
Saturday the eleventh: Due to the need to recover from the overnight trip of the day before, Lisa and I slept in later than my usual rising time. However, I was still up before her, and took a stroll along the road that led past the property. I found it to be developed to the point that only the common suburban birds could fairly be expected, but I did find a soaring red-tailed hawk, mourning dove, and Zenaida dove as new birds for the trip. Zenaida doves (which I had only seen before once or twice in my life) in particular were very common and, in fact, the dominant columbid in the area.
It became very hot by 9:00 a.m. and I returned to the villa to spend time with our friends. Through the course of the day I was alert for avian visitors, of course. A Puerto Rican woodpecker showed up in a bare treetop and permitted long and satisfying views. Caribbean martins wheeled about over an open field across the road during the afternoon (which constituted a second life sighting, to the best of my recollection). An Antillean nighthawk coursed through, suggesting that in August they may be pretty common and widespread. Over the ocean offshore from the property I found a flying laughing gull, virtually the only gull to be seen during the trip. A shorebird, probably a spotted sandpiper, alit briefly on the beach before being started up by a man walking a dog.
I retired that night early with plans to strike out for an important site before dawn.
Sunday the twelfth: After a poor and fitful night’s sleep, I rose at just after 4:00 a.m., an hour earlier than I had planned; collected my things quietly; and stole out of the house. The deserted streets of Aguada were quickly navigated, and after a brief period of confusion over a missed turn, I gained Route 2, the main road that circumnavigates the island. I turned back toward Aguadilla and beyond, with Rio Abajo State Forest as my destination.
The path from Aguada to Rio Abajo is a relatively straightforward one – take Route 2 east to the newer bypass toward San Jose known as Route 22, to the south-running Route 10. Route 2 between Aguada and the turnoff to Route 22 is a well-paved road with few potholes and generally multiple lanes. It has only two drawbacks. First, the fourty-four-odd kilometers from Aguada to the 22 turnoff is peppered with stoplights to a degree that faileth human reckoning. Second, it features some of the worst driving habits I have ever witnessed. At one point, my friend Matt and I watched in amazement as an enterprising fellow turned left from the rightmost lane beside us, across two lanes of cars stopped at a light and the three oncoming lanes of traffic that were movng. He made it, but honestly, he shouldn’t have.
All that being said, my unexpectedly early rise and commencement of the voyage yielded a very beneficial discovery about the local customs. In the predawn hours, the Puerto Rican citzenry traveling on Route 2, by apparent implicit agreement, simply ignore the stoplights. The drivers on intersecting secondary roads, evidently aware of this, treat the stoplights as if they were stop signs (even when the lights are green for them), and wait for a break in the traffic before trying to enter or cross. I witnessed this phenomenon occur without exception at the first couple of lights, and, catching on, I took the maxim “When in Rome” to heart (ironically fearing only that a law-abiding tourist might enter from one of the side roads, trusting to the green light). As a result, the drive on Route 2 took half the time it would have in the daytime traffic.
The turnoff to Route 22 was well-signed and the expressway was an even better road than Route 2, with no lights to boot. From the turnoff to the Route 10 exit was only a few minutes.
Based on the map, I had anticipated Route 10 to be a typical small hill country road with bad turns and worse surface integrity. I was happily surprised to find it to be a thoroughly modern highway admitting of trouble-free high-speed travel. It was still well before 6:00 a.m. – I would have reached this point even sooner absent the confusion about the missed turn in Aguada – and I hardly saw other cars on this stretch, which I navigated in the persisting dark. The absence of other traffic was a boon because it allowed me to slow and examine the few side roads. After only about thirteen minutes on Route 10 I noticed a sign frame on the right side of the road, with the sign itself lying on the ground in front of it. As this was about the point I expected to find the entrance to Rio Abajo, I pulled in and got out of my car to check the fallen sign. It proved, indeed, to be the sign for the Rio Abajo Bosque Estatal.
It has been said that the entrance road to Rio Abajo is the 621, but it should be clarified that the 621 does not reach all the way to Route 10. Instead, the road that leads from Route 10 is the 6612, and it goes a very short way (with some middling potholes and ruts) to end at a T-intersection with the 621. At the T, you can turn right and quickly reach the visitors’ center (closed when I visited), or turn left and start making your way past the refuge manager’s office toward the state forest itself.
My directions, however, ended at the intersection with Route 10, and I cast about in the dark for a while looking for some sign or other landmark to indicate that I was in the appropriate birding area. Failing to find any sure markers, I settled for parking the car on the roadside just beyond the refuge management office, and walking through a promising-looking natural area beginning just before 6:00 a.m. in the dark.
A Puerto Rican screech-owl was calling not far from the road, but refused to come in for viewing, which meant it did not count as a life sighting by my personal rules. As the dawn broke a Puerto Rican flycatcher similarly called well back in the trees, but also did not move closer for a sighting. The light rose and I started casting back and forth along the road, looking for sign of the premier endemic of the island.
The Puerto Rican parrot was once numerous and widespread through the tropical forests that clothed much of the island. When humans arrived, however, they systematically cleared the usable habitat, causing the species’ numbers to plummet. By 1975, there were only thirteen of the parrots left in the wild, all at the sole remaining primary forest of any size – El Yunque, on the eastern third of the island.
Concerted efforts to replenish the parrots’ numbers began, centering around periodic releases at El Yunque from a captive breeding program. Unfortunately, the wild flock’s numbers grew only slowly, as the parrots’ reproductive success was poor. The humid El Yunque climate produced high nest failure and chick mortality from fungal infections and related illnesses. By the mid-2000s there were only about sixty birds in the El Yunque flock.
When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, it demolished El Yunque. The vegetation there was reportedly knocked flat to the ground, leaving nothing for the parrots there to live in. After the hurricane, out of over a hundred parrots known to have been present before the storm, only two were found alive. It is uncertain whether they survive today.
Turning the clock back about twelve years, conservation scientists had come to the realization that the parrot flock remained at El Yunque, not because it was the parrots’ preferred habitat, but because they had no other extensive forest nearby to go to. In precolonial times, the parrots would have come to El Yunque to feed, but would have dispersed to drier areas to nest.
So birds from the captive breeding program were released at Rio Abajo State Forest, which by that time had grown into mature secondary forest, to form a second wild flock. In the more favorable conditions of Rio Abajo, the new flock thrived, and by 2016 had reached approximately 130 to 140 birds.
While Rio Abajo took some damage from Maria, it fared much better than El Yunque, and so did its parrots. Post-hurricane searches have turned up roughly ninety to one hundred surviving wild birds. The captive breeding program sports about 275 additional birds, for a total of just under four hundred individuals constituting the entire world population (not counting any that may be in the illegal exotic pet trade).
When the light rose, I was thus relieved to see the forest at Rio Abajo appearing tall and lush, with few markers of damage from the hurricane. Where I stood, the forest was closed on one side of the road, but on the other a vista opened of tall limestone karst ridges half-dressed with vegetation.
The first new bird I spotted was a RED-LEGGED THRUSH, which is present in good numbers in the area. This is a rather smart entry in the thrush catalog, with neat gray and black plumage, typical streaked turdid throat, red bill, and, of course, red legs. It wasn’t particularly wary and I was able to position myself well to examine it minutely.
Next I heard what I suspected was a Puerto Rican vireo, and also had a cattle egret fly over. Focusing on the endemic flycatcher, which was still calling from out of sight, I tried a couple of different approaches including an overgrown track, but could get no closer to the bird. Then, serendipitiously, I turned to see a pair of birds fly up and perch on a tree at the knife-top of one of the karst ridges – a pair of PUERTO RICAN FLYCATCHERS in ready view, familiar in their very typical tyrant-flycatcher plumage.
I had just taken the binoculars off the flycatchers when I noted a flock of birds very high. Their shape and flight style at once put me on alert. I scrutinized them as well as I could with the binoculars in the few moments they were visible, heading out in the direction of Route 10. Even with the binoculars, in the still-meager light of the early day, no details of plumage could be discerned, but there was no question in my mind that they had been Amazona-type parrots. I would later learn, in discussion with one of the local biologists, that although there was the occasional sighting of a parrot of an introduced species at Rio Abajo, these were inevitably lone birds or pairs, and did not demonstrate flocking behavior. Instead, what I had seen was a phenomenon that had been observed a couple of times before, a flocking movement occurring at that time of day and in the direction I had observed, indicating that the wild PUERTO RICAN PARROTS were at least exploring distribution beyond the areas where they had been released. I would have an opportunity to observe other individuals of the species in greater detail later, as shall be related in this report, but this was the sighting that counted for me.
Elated, I decided to explore further and try to find the landmarks mentioned in previous trip reports (such as a closed security gate blocking further travel along the road, or a cleared track that led along a series of electric wire poles). Unfortunately, after driving over increasingly bad roads through a couple of small settlements, I did not find any clear sign as to where I should go.
Near one of the settlements, I found ORANGE-CHEEKED WAXBILLS perched on a wire fence. I tried going as far as I could on 621, hoping to find the landmarks I was looking for, but I stopped when I came to a roadside sign that read “Danger – Do Not Enter.” This was just past one of the collections of houses, at the crest of a narrow hill, and I tried parking there and walking the road beyond, which led through some healthy-looking forest. There I found some black-and-yellow birds that proved to be PUERTO RICAN ORIOLES playing near the treetops. From its hiding place in the greenery a broad-winged hawk gave its familiar “t’peeee” call, and I also saw a couple of helmeted guineafowl creeping off into the forest. I was unable to lure in a calling Puerto Rican lizard-cuckoo for a look, but well up in the branches made out the green plumage, red throat, and straight bill of a PUERTO RICAN TODAY that kept moving around. I found a black-whiskered vireo, and heard both Puerto Rican bullfinch and an Adelaide’s warbler. Once again, the birds were indifferent to played calls and did not come in to be seen. Given the apparently significant populations present here, however, I suspect that in the first five months of the year or so, they would be fairly easy to draw out of hiding.
I returned to the area I had been exploring just past the manager’s office (he did not seem to be present) and did a bit more birding without turning up anything new, but getting better looks at more red-legged thrushes. It was now getting late in the morning and I was anticipating a more difficult drive back on Route 2 to the rental property, so I packed it in and eventually rejoined Lisa and my friends.
Lisa and I took an evening stroll along the beach, awaiting the sunset, and I noted both black-bellied plover and spotted sandpiper, along with the usual pelicans, terns, and great egrets. I also picked out something poking its head momentarily out of the water and immediately disappearing, which happened about three or four times, and deduced that it was a sea turtle coming up for air – probably a hawksbill, which is the usual species seen on that coast.
Monday the thirteenth: A morning walk into the field across the road from the rental property produced only killdeer and common ground-doves as new species for the trip. Around midmorning Lisa and I headed to Rio Abajo together as Lisa was keen to see the parrots. The trip in the daylight took about an hour and a half, including the time running from Route 10 up into the healthy-forest area from the day before. This time I decided to ignore the warning sign and continue on the forested road as far as I could go. Eventually we came to a closed security gate that matched the landmark described in previous trip reports.
We parked to do some birding and, fortuitously, one of the local biologists appeared in a truck just at that time. I had obtained permission before the trip to have a tour of the aviary beyond the security gate, but had not arranged a specific time to arrive, so it was great good fortune that we happened to show up just as someone was going in. I spoke with him at some length about the situation with the parrots and described my sighting from the morning before. He was very excited to have a further account of the morning flock movement of which they had received a few previous reports, and soon we were being escorted for a brief tour of the captive breeding facility beyond the security gate.
To Lisa’s delight, we soon came in view of a large cage with juvenile parrots who were among the products of the breeding program. From a fairly close distance we studied the green plumage, blue wing patches, white eye-rings, and red fringes above the beaks. A few had pulled feathers from their bodies out of boredom, but they seemed interested in us and very active, making the usual psittacine vocalizations and dancing around in excitement.
A short ways beyond, we saw a larger cage with adult birds in it. Our guide explained that Dominican parrots were occasionally used to help raise new chicks, but these were all the native parrot species. We discussed the present numbers in the breeding program and the wild flock, and the pace of recovery from the hurricane. At length he introduced us to the other staff at the facility and we thanked them profusely for the experience and for the work they were doing.
Back outside the security gate, I spotted the start of the trail leading along the electrical pylons. Lisa was hot and after walking only fifty feet or so, elected to wait in the air conditioning of the car. I followed the trail for a short space to an overlook where I hoped to see more free-flying parrots. Along the way I heard a few somewhere in the jungle, but did not catch sight of them. Other songs I had come to recognize tantalized me along the path, like the cuckoo and Adelaide’s warbler, but the birds were staying hidden well back in the greenery. While I waited clouds rolled in and a cool breeze arose, presaging rainfall, so I headed back to the car, enjoying a few stray raindrops along the way. The weather held off but I couldn’t see keeping Lisa waiting too long while I birded, so we started the return trip to the rental property. On the way out of the forest we crested the narrow hill where the “Danger – Do Not Enter” sign was posted, and I now saw there was a yellow gate there, open and almost invisible in the overgrowth. As I had learned from the biologist, the area between the closed security gate and this open yellow gate was the Rio Abajo State Forest proper, and I wished I had spent more time along this route. On the other hand, if I had, I might not have been near the manager’s office when the parrot flock flew over, and it’s possible I would have had no actual sighting of wild birds, so it’s hard to weigh the possibilities against each other.
From the open yellow gate back to Route 10, at a safe pace, it was about an eighteen-minute drive. In the daytime traffic the trip from there to Aguada was about another hour and a half. Someone leaving at 4:30 a.m. or so, I believe, could make it from Aguada to the start of the prime birding area in just over an hour.
Tuesday the fourteenth: Rising early again, I was on the road at about 5:15 a.m., intending to take Route 2 south this time to the Sabana Grande area and then cut north to Maricao State Forest. When I reached Route 2 at just after 5:30 a.m., however, I found that the locals had reverted to honoring the stoplights, so the cutoff is probably 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. This was unfortunate because Mayaguez, just to the south of Aguada, was a largish city with an irritating number of traffic lights on its stretch of Route 2. It was about twenty-eight miles on Route 2 to the Sabana Grande area; once I was past Mayaguez there were no more lights and I reached the exit for Route 102 around 6:00 a.m. A short drive on the 102 brought me into Sabana Grande. From there I had to ask a local where the turnoff to Route 120 and Maricao was. It turned out the signs for the preserve referred to it by its local nickname, Monte del Estado.
Route 120 was a well-paved road but otherwise a typical country track through some suburbs and then winding up into the hills, with many switchbacks and blind turns. Like most Puerto Rican roads, it had regular kilometer markers on the roadsides, making it easy to provide precise directions. Once I reached the kilometer 11 marker, the road tended to straighten out and the going was easier. Just before and within sight of the kilometer 16.2 marker, I took a well-signed left onto the entrance road for the Maricao State Forest visitor center and camping areas. Parking in a concrete space overlooking the camping areas and buildings, I could see just uphill a red gate closing off a side track. I walked to and through this and started along a trail that looked promising for peak-hour birding.
Although the trail was mostly level, it was on a hillside, such that to the left the forested bank rose up to a crest, while on the right it dropped down a moderate slope and forest canopy. Most of the vegetation appeared untouched by the hurricane, and I was told that there in the center of the state forest that was true, but toward the periphery there were a lot more downed trees.
Trip reports from people who had visited in better season suggested this was one of the birdiest trails sampled on the island. During my initial foray, probably due to the August timing, it proved to be surprisingly quiet, but I did soon have the inquisitive but somewhat dour-looking PUERTO RICAN TANAGERS come in to inspect me. These turned out to be perhaps the most commonly-sighted species on the trail. I also had the real pleasure of a few different scolding Puerto Rican todies, which bounced around in view at eye level in the usual tody fashion. After hearing a number of individuals, I finally had a PUERTO RICAN VIREO come into view as it foraged through a cascade of vines and branches on the uphill side of the trail; several others would make appearances at various points on this and a further trail, such that I had full satisfaction in observing them. Finally, the cardinal-like calls of another endemic at last were followed by the emergence of the bird itself, with the first of several PUERTO RICAN BULLFINCHES showing well, black with red throat and bullfinch-strong bill.
Next I returned to the car and continued further on Route 120 to the kilometer 16.8 marker, where a small parking area on the left side of the road ended at a chain-link gate. Beyond the walking entrance beside the gate two trails began, one heading uphill and the other down. I chosed the downward trail (the Camino Bajo or “Low Road”), which clearly had not had much attention of late, as it was quite choked with vegetation and had a number of trees fallen over it that made for difficult hiking.
After a while on this trail, I picked out some movement in a cluster of leaves, and followed the bird until it came into view. To my surprise, it was an ELFIN-WOODS WARBLER! Looking like a slightly plumper version of a black-and-white warbler, with a solid cheek patch rather than striping, it picked around the branches – somewhat sluggishly for a warbler – and allowed me to watch it for an extended time. This would be the first of at least three birds I saw on this trail, and I would see another when I returned to the visitor’s center trail for another look. As previous reports have suggested, the species, though restricted to just a few known sites on the island, seems to be quite common here, and its numbers may not have been seriously affected by Hurricane Maria.
The trail was the first place on Puerto Rico where I encountered thorny vines. They were weak by northeastern standards and did not penetrate my jeans, but when they caught my exposed arms, left fine hairlike thorns that persistently burned. I stopped for a moment to pluck them out, and the briefest rinse of water stopped the burning, so they were utlimately not much of an impediment to birding.
The Low Road trail yielded another bullfinch sighting and more heard-only Adelaide’s warblers, but eventually I could not make further progress on it. Returning to the car, I spotted the trip’s first turkey vulture drifting along, and saw a tody that seems to make the trailhead its stomping grounds.
I went back to the first trail above the visitor’s center, which, oddly enough, seemed to be more productive in the midmorning hours. More Puerto Rican tanagers, todies, vireos, and bullfinches showed well, and also the previously-mentioned elfin-woods warbler. One group of tanagers included some birds with head patterns reminiscent of saltators; a check of the birding app confirmed my guess that they were juvenile or female-type PUERTO RICAN SPINDALIS.
The morning’s heat advanced, and activity gradually died down to nothing. So I resumed the car and headed back to the rental properrty. The trip downhill on the 120 was much quicker and I was in Sabana Grande in twenty minutes; from there I took the 102 back to Carretera 2 and on to our Puerto Rican home base.
That afternoon, the regular troupial visitors to the rental property were joined by a pair of Puerto Rican orioles and a Puerto Rican woodpecker. I spent some time in the bedroom with Lisa, enjoying the air conditioning as a respite from the heat, and she suddenly said there was a hummingbird visible in the treetop outside our window. The bird – which was the only hummingbird I had a decent look at in Puerto Rico, never having tracked down any other jacaranda trees on the island – turned out to be a female ANTILLEAN MANGO, with medium-longish decurved bill, white underparts, middling green upperparts, and wingtips reaching to the tail end.
We spent another three days on the island, but I did not fit any more birdwatching in of significance. On Thursday the sixteenth we did enjoy a snorkeling expedition off Table Rock Beach, in nearby Rincon, where we saw flounder, pufferfish, and small Caribbean reef squid, as well as triggerfish and other common coral denizens. The reef was not a very healthy one, though, and I had experienced more variety swimming along the reef bordering the swimming beach in Ocho Rios in Jamaica in the 1980s, before climate change began to take its toll. On the other hand, the water temperature was wonderful, and it was the most buoyant water I have ever swum in, such that it was really not necessary to move at all to stay afloat.
Had I more time to bird on Puerto Rico, I would have spent it by: visiting Guanico State Forest for further quality birding and a stab at the nightjar; staking out a well-flowered jacaranda tree or two somewhere for hummingbirds; and stopping at the hardware store in La Parguera for the daily feeding of the local yellow-shouldered blackbirds. As it was, with relatively low effort, I saw ten of the island’s seventeen or eighteen endemic bird species, including the prizewinner of the trip, the endemic and critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot. Given that the time of year was not conducive to birding success, this strongly underscores Puerto Rico’s allure as a birding destination.
Perhaps more importantly, my observations during the trip indicate that the Puerto Rican environment is recovering from the hurricane, and the endemic bird species survived the storm in apparently substantial populations, putting aside the perennial issue of the Puerto Rican parrot. I hope this report serves as an encouragement and a guide to birders considering excursions to Puerto Rico in the coming months and years. As always, good birding.