In Brief: This year’s WINGS tour to Puerto Rico was a great success. Although islands in the Greater Antilles don’t hold the same diversity of species as mainland sites in the tropics, they have a higher rate of endemism and hold many regional specialties that combine for an exciting birding trip. On this year’s tour we encountered 16 of the 17 endemics (all except the Puerto Rican Parrot, which is virtually impossible to see during the breeding season due to forest closures), and 113 species overall (a new trip record). I suspect that for most of this year’s participants the highlight species for the trip was likely the fantastic view of a Puerto Rican Screech-Owl that came in to tape after several nights of trying. Honorable mention though must go to jewel-like Puerto Rican Todies, surprisingly attractive Puerto Rican Bullfinches, sprightly and enigmatic Elfin-Woods Warblers (which we saw well, and easily this year) and charismatic Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoos. In addition to the endemics, Puerto Rico offers a nice array of Caribbean specialties. Some non-endemic highlights on the 2013 tour included West Indian Whistling-Ducks, several large bodied Scaly-naped Pigeons and a couple of the globally scarce and colorful Plain Pigeons, an amazingly cooperative Key-West Quail-Dove, and the unique Antillean Crested Hummingbird. I can think of few better places for a relaxed weeklong trip in the Caribbean than the beautiful and accessible island of Puerto Rico.
In Detail: We started the trip by heading East out of San Juan, to explore the relatively humid Northeast corner of the island. A short stop near the town of Fajardo produced excellent looks at the colorful Green-throated Carib, and the unique and charismatic Antillean Crested Hummingbird. Also present were our first (of many) Gray Kingbirds, a family group of the impressively bulky and ominous Pearly-eyed Thrashers and a couple of Black-faced Grassquits. Along the nearby coast we were happy to locate 9 Brown Boobies perched on close by pilings. A single Sandwich Tern was loafing in amongst a flock of Royal Terns, and some careful scanning along the breakwall revealed a couple of Semipalmated Plovers and Spotted Sandpipers. As always, seeing Magnificent Frigatebirds wheeling over bright blue skies provided an excellent backdrop! A little to the south, near Humacao we visited a nice wetland complex of coastal mangrove forest and brackish lagoons. Walking among the palm, gumbo limbo and mangrove choked paths we located our first Puerto Rico Flycatchers and a gaudy Puerto Rican Woodpecker. Also present were some Caribbean Coots, a furtive White-cheeked Pintail, Least and Pied-billed Grebes and a small group of Nutmeg Manakins. A small warbler flock contained Prairie and Yellow Warblers, Northern Parula and American Redstart, and we spent some time studying an immature Merlin perched in the subcanopy after an obviously substantial meal. After lunch we walked out into a dry grassland adjacent to the reserve and were happy to enjoy excellent views of a cooperative Mangrove Cuckoo, in an isolated tree as well as a couple of Smooth-billed Ani, several Yellow-faced Grassquits, two skulking Wilson’s Snipe and an impressive number of West Indian Cave Swallows. As the heat began to climb we hopped in the van for the drive over to our hotel for the evening, in the Northwest corner of the island.
Early the next morning we visited the Cambalache State Forest. This nice patch of mature forest harbors many bromeliads, thick vine tangles and a wealth of tree diversity. In the car park we encountered a cooperative several Red-legged Thrushes and a Puerto Rican Vireo, with a nearby Black-whiskered Vireo for the sake of comparison. Along the forest trails we enjoyed our first encounters with the impressive and entertaining Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, and several jewel-like Puerto Rican Todies. We played hide and seek with a small group of Puerto Rican Spindalis and had quick views of Puerto Rican Bullfinch. We then explored a nearby marsh, where we hope to find the frustratingly difficult Yellow-breasted Crake. Although we failed to connect with the crake, a Least Bittern was calling from the reeds, a single American Coot was cavorting with several of its Caribbean cousins, and we enjoyed our first looks at Yellow-faced Grassquit, introduced Orange-cheeked Waxbills and Common Yellowthroat in the grasses along the lake margins. As we drove west towards our lunch stop our trip itinerary was momentarily setback by a blown tire. After lunch at a nearby restaurant and some judicious tire changing we set off again, on a small side highway that skirts the coast. With the white surf, and Caribbean white sand as our companion we stopped to scan some small wetlands where we located a group of White-cheeked Pintails amidst a large flock of Blue-winged Teal, and our first Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilt, Glossy Ibis and Least Sandpipers of the tour. Also present was a single, very richly colored American Flamingo, a rare species for the island (this particular individual has been frequenting the area for several years). On the drive around the western edge of the island enroute to Guanica we stopped in at a roadside cliff overlook, where several pairs of White-tailed Tropicbirds plied the skies. An after dinner owling trip scored with excellent (if brief) views of a Puerto Rican Nightjar flying over the road, and audio of both another Nightjar and a Puerto Rican Screech-Owl.
Day three found us traveling uphill to visit the Maricao State Forest. This protected area harbors a unique elfin forest along a montane ridge, with small-leafed and small-statured trees, and numerous flowers. We experienced somewhat less than ideal weather conditions, with bands of fog and light precipitation and strong winds, but by picking sheltered stretches of road to walk along we quickly picked up a host of new birds. Flocks of stocky Puerto Rican Tanagers were much in evidence, often accompanied by groups of Puerto Rican Spindalis. We had excellent views of two agitated Loggerhead Kingbirds (a candidate for splitting off as Puerto Rico’s 18th endemic) in a small forest clearing, and were happy to locate a pair of Green Mangos attending a nest nearby. We made several stops along the road wherever the weather and foliage dictated, and during the morning managed to locate several Puerto Rican Emeralds, many Scaly-naped Pigeons, a single male Antillean Euphonia, and some migrant warblers including Black-throated Blue. At one stop we were enthralled by two incredibly cooperative Puerto Rican Todies that were perched almost within touching distance. The excitement level really ramped up though when we located a pair of Elfin Woods Warblers feeding in the trees next to the trail. First described in 1971, this active species is still poorly known and with a recent estimation of about 600 individuals is also quite rare, and we felt lucky to have eye-level views for several minutes this year! Given our success, and the weather we elected to drive downhill to have a picnic lunch in the foothills of Susua Forest. A walk down a creek in the park revealed our first Puerto Rican Oriole of the trip, as well as a single Lesser Antillean Pewee (also a candidate for splitting). We then stopped in at our hotel for a siesta before taking a scenic stroll along the coast, stopping to admire the limestone shelves, sandy stretches of beaches and coastal columnar cacti. After a nice beachside dinner we set out to look for Puerto Rican Screech-Owl. A pleasant walk in the woods followed, with excellent audio of several uncooperative individuals that remained frustratingly far away from the road.
The dry southwestern corner of the island was our backdrop for Day 4. This segment of the island owes its arid nature to the rain shadow cast by the mountainous central spine of the island. It is a varied landscape with the scrubby, cactus filled forests and agricultural lands standing in sharp contrast to the many freshwater wetlands, mangrove forests and saltpans that dot the region. Whenever one birds on islands the highlight species are undoubtedly endemics, and we started off the day with a stop in La Parguera, where a local shopkeeper has been providing food and water for birds for several years. A huge flowering tree in the store’s front yard was in full bloom and we enjoyed close views of several critically endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds dismembering the flowers in a style reminiscent of a flowerpiercer. The tree was also full of foraging Bannanaquits, Antillean Mangos and Puerto Rican Emeralds, and kept us entertained for quite some time. We then made a mid-morning stop in the rapidly drying out wetland of Laguna Cartegena, where mats of floating vegetation harboured herds of Common and Purple Gallinule, feeding Glossy Ibis and herons, and our main quarry for the site; West Indian Whistling-Duck. Careful scanning against the reedbeds revealed several Sora feeding in the open and a couple of cryptic Masked Ducks lurking in the floating vegetation. In the nearby grassy fields a few exotic species provided some excitement with views of flocks of Orange-cheeked Waxbills and Orange Bishops and a small group of Bronze Munias. Next up we visited the mangrove forests of Boqueron where we found a couple of Puerto Rican Pewees (currently considered a part of Lesser Antillean Pewee, but surely a full species) and a host of wintering warblers including Prairie, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-and-White, and Northern Waterthrush. A stroll through the mangroves also provided excellent views of gaudy Puerto Rican Woodpeckers, and audio of some uncooperative Clapper Rails. After lunch we ventured out to the island’s southwest tip, where open saltpans, mangrove groves, and sandy beaches attract numerous wading birds. We enjoyed wonderful close views of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, hordes of Stilt Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs, and a real surprise in the form of a wintering Red-necked Phalarope! Just before we headed back to the hotel we stop to admire a very responsive Caribbean Elaenia below the Cabo Rojo lighthouse. After dinner we visited elected to try a different area for Puerto Rican Screech-Owl, and apart from a surprise visit down a long dirt road by about 50 fully geared up mountain bikers we had the area all to ourselves. In virtually no time we heard a calling owl, and within minutes were able to pin it down in a spotlight at close range. The proportionately small head without readily discernible eartufts and the characteristic drooped wing posture combine to give this little owl a very unique feel, and after trying for several nights in a row it was a real treat to have such excellent views.
On our last full day we revisited a few of the better spots in the southwest corner in an attempt to catch up on better views of a few endemics. In the dry forest near Guanica we located a cooperative (finally!) Puerto Rican Bullfinch, which actually showed well for several minutes. A mid-morning stop at the Susua State Forest was really productive, as we enjoyed last views of Puerto Rican Tody and Woodpecker, and found only our second Puerto Rican Oriole of the trip. Perhaps the bird of the morning though was a gorgeous Key West Quail-Dove that we had in the scope for over ten minutes. The green crown, brilliant purple nape, reddish wings and white facial stripe combine to make a truly striking dove. Enroute back to San Juan after a scenic picnic lunch on the coast we made the windy trip up the mountains to view several Plain Pigeons (which are anything but plain) foraging in some fruiting trees at a known stakeout site. It was a fine way to cap an excellent trip to Puerto Rico!
Updated: March 2013