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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Puerto Rico

2017 Narrative

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 all of the 19 endemics and tied our all-time trip record of 126 species overall. As is the norm for this trip the jewel-like and highly charismatic Puerto Rican Tody won top honours as bird of the trip.  But honorable mention must go to the surprisingly charismatic Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoos, enigmatic Elfin-Woods Warblers (which we saw well this year), and our fantastic views of a close Puerto Rican Screech-Owl.  In addition to the endemics, Puerto Rico offers a nice array of Caribbean specialties.  Some non-endemic highlights on the 2017 tour included great views of 5 species of hummingbirds including the attractive Antillean Crested Hummingbird and dazzling Green Mango, several globally scarce and anything but plain Plain Pigeons, a flock of West Indian Whistling-Ducks, an inexhaustible parade of Bananaquits, and “Mr. Pinky”, the long-staying lone American Flamingo that has been adopted by locals as a mascot.  As often is the case the island held a few surprises for us as well.  We managed to find a vagrant American Avocet that was wintering in a small coastal reserve surrounded by Black-necked Stilts and a few Stilt Sandpipers, and also found a wintering Magnolia Warbler flitting about in the dense mangroves of Boqueton.  Our time out at Cabo Rojo served as a great impromptu shorebird workshop with hundreds of peep of all three species, Snowy and Wilson’s Plover and handsome near breeding plumaged Stilt Sandpipers each admired in turn.  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: Our first birds were recorded on the grounds of our San Juan hotel, where a brief walk over to dinner the first night allowed us to study Greater Antillean Grackles, White-winged Doves, a few Caribbean Martins and a single flying White-winged Parakeet.  The next morning we then drove east to explore the relatively humid Northeast corner of the island.  A stop near the town of Fajardo produced excellent looks at two charismatic Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, an oddly shaped hummingbird with a distinctive backward facing crest. Our first (of many) Gray Kingbirds, several impressively bulky and ominously predatory looking Pearly-eyed Thrashers, and a couple of active Black-faced Grassquits rounded out the cast.  On the non-bird front a very handsome Puerto Rican Crested Anole put on a nice display on a limestone boulder for us as well.  Along the nearby coast we made a brief stop at a stretch of beach lined with old piers and were delighted to find over a half-dozen Brown Boobies perched on some abandoned boats and buoys.  Here too were our first Royal and Sandwich Terns, Brown Pelicans, and, as usual, Magnificent Frigatebirds wheeling over the sparkling blue sea.  As we passed back by our first stop we pulled over to look at a flowering tree and were soon rewarded with views of a handsome Green-throated Carib zipping around in the tree.  While ogling the Carib, which is the generally confined to the humid eastern end of the island, we were happy to notice a pair of Venezuelan Troupial nest building in a broken streetlight fixture.  Although introduced these large and incredibly bright orange and black orioles sport bright blue facial skin and are simply stunning birds.  Not to be outdone, although admittedly a little less vibrant we also were treated to a single Puerto Rican Oriole that came in to feed on the same flowering tree as the Carib.  Content with our first Puerto Rican endemic and both of the range-restricted hummingbirds we headed a little to the south, near the town of Humacao, where 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 foraging in a large fruiting Gumbo-Limbo Tree, and were treated to incredibly close views of an inquisitive Mangrove Cuckoo that was perched along the trail, exhibiting none of the customary shyness that the birds in Florida seem to show.  Also present were a smattering of Caribbean Coots, which have recently lost their specific status and been subsumed into an expanded American Coot (not that they seemed to mind as they paddled around the mangrove lined ponds).  The lakes supported healthy numbers of Ruddy Ducks, including some attractively plumaged and displaying males, and several Common Gallinules with their ungainly chicks in tow.  A few Pied-billed Grebes plied the vegetated water edge, and at the far end of one lake we found an active heron rookery with lots of Snowy Egret and Tricolored Herons.  The forest thickets supported our first stunning Puerto Rico Woodpeckers that we found foraging, with their unique indigo-black back and scarlet chests gleaming in the early morning sun.  A couple more Green-throated Caribs appeared along the paths, one of which perched in perfect light allowing us to see the brilliant emerald green and navy blue in its plumage.  Wintering migrants lightened up the walk too, with American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart all dropping into view.  After a quick trip up to a nearby pasture which produced a small flock of Smooth-billed Ani we ducked into a nearby restaurant for lunch and then hopped in the van for the drive over to our hotel for the evening, in the Northwest corner of the island. The drive took a bit longer than expected due to some heavy rains and traffic, but we reached the postcard-perfect Caribbean coastline near the mouth of the Rio Grande in the late afternoon, spotting a good-sized flock of Black-necked Stilts, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, some Ruddy Turnstones and a few Black-bellied Plover foraging on the coralline rock shelves or sitting in the rivermouth. Whilst checking into the hotel we noted large numbers of Cattle Egret and Glossy Ibis flying over to their nightly roost, a fitting end to a great first day!

Early the next morning we visited the Cambalache State Forest.  This patch of mature forest harbors many bromeliads, thick vine tangles and a wealth of tree diversity, including almost a dozen species of endangered endemic trees.  Over a picnic breakfast we listened to a chorus of Common Ground-Dove, Scaly-naped Pigeon, Puerto Rican Bullfinch and Red-legged Thrush. Right above our picnic pavilion we located an active Puerto Rican Oriole nest that was tucked quite tidily in a large clump of Casaurina needles, complete with an overhanging eave.  A pair of Shiny Cowbirds had also discovered the nest and while we watched they were chased away by one of the irate Orioles parents. 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.  Often-secretive Puerto Rican Bullfinch (a bird that is poorly served by its illustration in the field guide) showed well this year, with several males perched in the canopy.  Puerto Rican Vireos began singing mid-morning and we soon were able to track a few cooperative individuals down. These active (for a vireo) little birds are long billed and somewhat resemble the assemblage of greenlets from Central and South America more than the ponderous and chunky vireos that are more familiar to American birders.  Near the far end of our walk we stopped at a likely looking spot and were soon rewarded with the audible hoots of a Key West Quail-Dove.  It took a little bit of effort to track down the calling bird, but we eventually reveled in lengthy scope views of this beautiful dove.  Clad in wine-purple, with a green hued head, bright white stripe across the cheek and copper and green hues on the neck this is truly a species to savour when blessed with such close and lengthy views.  Elated with our success we backtracked to the car, stopping occasionally to watch a Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo or Mangrove Cuckoo foraging in the vine tangles.  On the way we commented on the extremely high percentage of the local birds within the forest that are endemic to Puerto Rico.  With the exception of a few species of Pigeons, some Caribbean birds like Bananaquit and Red-legged Thrush, and a migrant Northern Parula all of the birds we found here were unique to the island.  We also took some time to look at a few of the large Golden Orb Weaver spiderwebs in the forest understory, investigating the amazingly strong main silk cable that these handsomely colored spiders hang their intricate webs from.   A short driving trip out into the grasslands and marshes north of the park revealed a few Monk Parakeets zooming around the hedgerows.  The thick stands of grass and clumps of castor held our first Yellow-faced Grassquits and some handsome Black-faced for comparison, and a furtive little group of introduced Orange-cheeked Waxbills.  Several of the resident and pale American Kestrels and migrant Merlin were spotted perched up in the grassland trees and hordes of Osprey were hunting over the nearby lake.  We walked out into the grass a short way and managed to drum up a responsive Grasshopper Sparrow, also a resident and local subspecies which circled us a couple of times and then dropped back into the grass.  Just before heading to lunch we made a brief return visit to the mouth of the Rio Grande River where we succeeded in locating a pair of foraging American Oystercatchers, a scarce species on the island, that were feeding on the rocky shelves of the beach.  We then took lunch, in the comforts of a local outlet mall (it would be hard to find more options for one’s lunch) and then we began the trip around the western side of the island.  With the blue sea and white Caribbean sand as our companions we stopped to scan some small wetlands where we located instructive views of Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpipers and many elegant Black-necked Stilts.  At a second pond we located our main quarry; a single, very richly colored American Flamingo, adopted by the locals and dubbed “Mr. Pinky”, a rare species for the island that we found loafing in a small farm pond.  He was accompanied by a good-sized flock of ducks including many Blue-winged Teal and several dozen White-cheeked Pintail.  After admiring the beautiful pintail for a few minutes we scanned through the flock and picked out a female American Wigeon and two diminutive Least Grebes.  The locals have even erected a small sign dedicated to Pinky, advertising his presence and advising passing tourists not to feed the flamingo.  Since we didn’t have any minute crustaceans handy this wasn’t really an issue, and after admiring his striking plumage we departed for the bluffs on the islands NW side.  At our usual stop at a roadside cliff overlook, we found several White-tailed Tropicbirds coursing along below us, some of which were performing their ritualistic courtship flights.  Also here we heard the distinctive chip notes of a Adelaide’s Warbler coming from below the overlook and with a bit of coaxing one birds popped up for an incredibly point-blank study just below us.  We continued on through Mayaguez stopping for some perched up Scaly-naped Pigeons and reached the sleepy town of Guanica by late afternoon where our first stop was the local supermarket (which is anything but sleepy), where we loaded up with breakfast supplies for the next three mornings.  Then we pulled into Mary Lee’s by the sea, our secluded and truly unique lodge for the next several nights.  This hotel, with its sprawling house-style rooms bedecked in a wild array of furnishings is one of the most interesting places that I stay anywhere.  Just acquainting oneself with the amenities can take an hour, and the deckside views of the ocean are truly tranquil.  After some time off we drove over to a nearby resort for a dinner that included local spiny lobster and red snapper, and a wonderful tasting of homemade ice creams such as Ginger, Cinnamon and Passionfruit.

Day four found us traveling uphill to explore the Maricao State Forest.  This protected area harbors a unique elfin forest along its montane ridges, with small-leafed and small-statured trees, and numerous flowers.  Although the clouds and rain descended after lunchtime the morning was overcast and mild, with temperatures in the upper 60’s and sunny breaks. As we climbed the mountain we heard Puerto Rican and Black-whiskered Vireos and Puerto Rican Bullfinches calling from seemingly every bend.  Then just as we entered their preferred elevation band a singing Elfin-Woods Warbler briefly joined the out-the-window chorus.  We quickly pulled over and were soon enjoying views of a pair of Elfin-Woods Warblers.  First described to science in 1971, this active species is still poorly known and with a recent estimation of about 600-800 individuals, is also quite rare.  The pair showed off extremely well, as they actively bounced around in the eye-level vegetation. It is an attractive species, with fine striations in the underparts, two thick white wingbars, black ear coverts and white eyerings, and with their flighty behavior, and long bill and tail it’s a wonder that the initial observers thought them to be migrant Black-and-White Warblers.   Our next stop of the day revealed the first of many Puerto Rican Tanagers feeding in some large Cecropia trees.  These odd, hulking birds with thick bills are likely not Tanagers, but rather are related to the Spindalis and possibly the Chat-Tanagers (also not Tanagers) of Hispaniola.  Also here we watched a foraging Puerto Rican Vireo as it hung upside down and poked into hanging leaf clusters looking for breakfast. Along a nice trail that takes you off the highway system and actually into the woods we found a few dainty Puerto Rican Pewees, with their characteristic rosy blush and quivering tail.  Calling Scaly-naped Pigeons flushed from the canopy above us, while pairs of Puerto Rican Todies terped from along the trailside and a male Puerto Rican Emerald buzzed by at eye level, showing off its long forked tail and dazzling green upperparts.  After a restroom break we continued on south a short distance to a pullout on the road adjacent to some fruiting trees.  Here we found a beautiful male Puerto Rican Spindalis sitting motionless in a short tree.  The four species of Spindalis were once considered to belong to the Tanager family (representing the only remaining “true” tanager on the ABA list) but recent evidence suggests that they are better placed in either a family of their own or in a newly created group along with a several other outlier species of birds spread over the Greater Antilles.  Here too were more Puerto Rican Vireos and another quite showy Elfin Woods Warbler.  We then set off to the site of our old highland hotel (defunct and largely abandoned for the past six years) and were shocked to pull into the parking lot to find it a hive of activity.  Rather than the customary sleeping security guard, open hacienda doors and general neglect the place was freshly painted and very recently reopened for business.  Happily for us their coffee shop, which serves truly exceptional local coffee was fully operational, and with cups of delicious coffee in hand we stood on the deck and watched the huge shaving brush tree (covered in bright pink rubbery blooms) that fills the courtyard.  The blooms were quite popular, and in about a half hour we enjoyed multiple views of several foraging Green Mangos, and a pair of stunning Antillean Euphonias that were gathering nesting material from the clumps of airplants that festoon the main tree.  A placidly sitting Loggerhead Kingbird (of the distinctive Puerto Rican endemic subspecies) showed off its brownish back and dark black cap as it sat for nearly our entire visit on some overhanging transmission lines, providing a much more satisfying view than the fly-over bird that we had seen earlier in the morning.  We decided to have a picnic lunch under the cover of a ramada as the rains looked imminent.  A quick walk up to an overlook that provides a sweeping view of the southwestern corner of the island allowed us to get a feel for the countryside that we would be investigating the next day.  Just as the rains began to fall we flushed a cooperative Key West Quail Dove up from a short trail near the overlook that perched for a few minutes on an overhanging branch.  We then headed back down the mountain as we had accomplished a complete sweep of our highland targets, returning to our seaside cabins in Guanica for a bit of a siesta.

After some time off at the hotel we drove to the end of the coastal road so that some could enjoy a swim in the sea, and others could check out a large pond where shorebirds often congregate. Along the walk into the pond we stopped to admire several beautiful Adelaide’s Warblers that were in full song along the trail.  The short trees along the coast provide a much better view of these canopy warblers, and this year it seemed as if we were under siege, with an Adelaide’s Warblers nearly flying through the group.  In the pond itself we were surprised to find a single American Avocet feeding in with a group of Black-necked Stilts, an exceedingly rare species for the island. The tidepools along the shore held bright Long-finned Damselfish, young Schoolmasters and several sprightly crabs and less-active Sea Cucumbers.  After dinner we investigated a nearby stretch of road that abuts the Guanica Dry Forest and were elated to hear and then see a very vocal Puerto Rican Nightjar.  This somewhat enigmatic species was actually believed to be extinct over much of the 20th century, with several searches for the species failing to turn up any birds.  In the 1980’s though ornithologists heard them calling from the dry scrub forests of the Southwest corner of the island.  Once their preferred habitat was established the Nightjars were found to be rare, and patchily distributed but certainly not extinct.  We heard about a half dozen individuals singing over the course of two hours, hopefully in a successful bid to continue replenishing the species.  We also

enjoyed a wonderful aural encounter with two very vocal but not responsive pairs of Puerto Rican Screech-Owls.  Some spotlighting in the trees as we walked back to the van revealed many tree snails foraging along the vines and branches, and we found a truly staggeringly large hermit crab (softball sized) lumbering across the road on the drive back to our coastal hotel.

The dry southwestern corner of the island was our canvas for Day 5.  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. Our first stop was at village of 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 within a few minutes of our arrival we found multiple Antillean Mangos and a female Puerto Rican Emerald (along with enough Bananaquits to easily fill a water jug with) busily feeding in the flowers.  It took only a few moments more for our main target to arrive, in the form of a half-dozen Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds. These attractive Icterids are confined to a small section of the island and to one offshore cay, and as such have a critically small population size, numbering only in the low hundreds.  We watched the group birds for some time as they foraged in a pink-flowering tree, noting how the birds posture affected the amount of yellow visible on the folded wing.  Happily we also found a few of these birds along the drive to Cabo Rojo and at the point itself later in the day, hopefully a testament to the success of the conservation efforts on their behalf.  A bright male Yellow Warbler (here of the resident “Golden” subspecies) popped in and out of the coastal mangroves across the road from the hardware store, and we spent a bit of time discussing the identity of the several African Collared-Doves that were displaying in the surrounding trees.  We then headed inland through the drier agricultural valley to the premier freshwater wetland on the island, Laguna Cartegena National Wildlife Refuge. 

Along an irrigation ditch on a back road we found a lot of seeding grass, and many attendant finches.  Small groups of introduced Northern Red Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills joined smaller numbers of Yellow and Black-faced Grassquits in the weedy thickets along the road.  Every year the water level is different, and this year we found the marsh to be largely dry, with some shallow open water and many clumps of reedbeds and mudflats. Apparently the El Nino of 2015/16 had brought drought conditions to much of the Caribbean, shrinking this often vast wetland to a shadow of its former self.  Among the flocks of the usual Blue-winged Teal and White-cheeked Pintail we picked out a pair of Northern Shoveler, and two Ring-necked Ducks.  Several bright Purple Gallinules and Sora were spotted as they dashed between clumps of reeds or sat in denser weedy bushes out in the wetlands.  Our main prize though was the flock of a half-dozen West Indian Whistling-Duck; a endangered species throughout its limited range, and one that is largely confined to just a handful of sites in Puerto Rico.  A few other trip birds appeared as well, with a couple of furtive Common Yellowthroats, and several Black-crowned Night-Herons. Next up we visited the mangrove forests of Boqueron where we found a smattering of wintering warblers including Prairie, Magnolia, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-and-White, and Northern Waterthrush.  Some very large and quite colorful crabs, and some very confiding Tricolor, Yellow-crowned Night- and Green Herons also provided some excellent photo opportunities.

After lunch at a nearby sandwich shop we ventured out to the island’s southwest tip, where open salt pans, mangrove groves, and sandy beaches attract numerous wading birds.  We enjoyed wonderful views of Least, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers in a mixed flock as well as impressive numbers of Lesser Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpipers, many in their nearly full breeding dress.  It was nice to be able to pick through the groups slowly and point out some of the pertinent identification features, and I hope that this year’s participants go home with a renewed sense of confidence on their peep ID skills. Also here in the cactus and thornscrub dry forest was our first Caribbean Elaenia (a bird that will admittedly not win any beauty contests).  We drove to the end of the road, stopping to admire a Clapper Rail that elected to cross the road in front of us and then slowly walk through the roadside mangroves.  As we scanned the salt flats below the lighthouse we picked out close views of both Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, giving us a full sweep of the expected plovers of Puerto Rico.  After dinner that night we elected to try again for views of Puerto Rican Screech-Owl, this time decided to head up the mountains for some more mature native forest.  At each of our stops the chorus and diversity of frogs singing was truly remarkable.  At least a half-dozen species of frogs were singing out due to the late afternoon rains, and at times it was so loud that hearing owls became difficult.  Once we drove up high enough to be away from the deafening frogs and barking dogs we were thrilled to hear a Screech-Owl vigorously calling from just overhead.  With a bit of judicious moving around we were soon watching the bird at an eye-level perch, calling with its throat puffed out.  Its proportionately small head lacking readily discernable eartufts and characteristic drooped wing posture combined to form a shape that is quite distinct from the rest of the new world Screech-Owls.  Our views were lengthy and at close range, some of the best that I have had over my nine trips to the island and the Screech-Owl came very close to edging out the perennial favorite bird of the trip; The Puerto Rican Tody.

On our last full day of the trip we realized that we had succeeded in seeing all of the expected endemic and Caribbean birds around the island.  This left just one endemic remaining, and we decided to make an impromptu trip to the Rio Abajo Forest (and the local permit office that regulates visitation to the location) in an attempt to find the critically endangered Puerto Rican Parrot.  Once we were fully in compliance with the local law enforcement we were granted permission to walk into the forest towards the current research aviary where the Department of Natural Resources has been rearing and releasing Puerto Rican Parrots back into the wild.  This site is the second such site on the island where reintroduction attempts have been made.  The first location, in the higher elevation forest around El Yunque failed to produce any successful breeding and the released birds were slowly picked off by the endangered local subspecies of Broad-winged Hawks that found them easy prey.  Happily the birds released around Rio Abajo have fared much better, perhaps in part due to the predator avoidance training that is now done before their release, or perhaps due to the lower elevation with more consistent fruiting cycles.  Over the past decade the department has released birds into the protected area of Rio Abajo and these birds have become to range afield of the release site and to breed.  The population of free-flying birds now numbers somewhere close to 150 individuals, a cautiously optimistic number.  The aviary staff have been quite successful in getting captive birds to breed and, in fact, they have the unexpected issue of having too many birds to comfortably house.  Plans are underway to begin a new released population in Maricao forest, to ensure that local disasters would have less of a chance of wiping out the entire species.  With this knowledge in hand we walked down the road and within about a half a kilometer heard the unmistakable high-pitched yaps of some parrots in the canopy.  We crept up towards the calling birds and were thrilled to realize that over a dozen birds were feeding in a grove of fruiting trees just off the road.  We spent about 15 minutes with them, watching as they shifted around the treetops, clambering around and devouring the soft-bodied figlike fruits.  They are small for an Amazona parrot, but with distinctive bluish wings, bright red foreheads and very attractive yellow-orange tails.  The scope views were exceptional, and we felt truly privileged to see so many birds so well, and so quickly.  The visit to Rio Abajo was not all about the parrots of course, the forest here is lush and rich in endemic plants and birds.  We especially enjoyed multiple pairs of Puerto Rican Todies along the road, and although somewhat annoyingly high in the trees were happy to find a few Puerto Rican Woodpeckers (strangely scarce this year, perhaps due to the later than usual date) and our first clear looks at Black-whiskered Vireos.  While eating our picnic lunch at the Rio Abajo campground we were joined by a presumably young Puerto Rican Oriole in an odd orange plumage that I had not previously encountered and a very vocal Loggerhead Kingbird.  A Sharp-shinned Hawk of the endemic resident subspecies zipped through the clearing as well, but sadly for the participants and I, was only seen by Evan (and the agitated Kingbird).  In the midafternoon we began the journey back to San Juan, with a side trip west of Caguas that took a little longer than normal this year.  Once we arrived at the schoolyard near Comerio we quickly saw several Plain Pigeons in flight, and soon thereafter found several birds perched on nearby flowering trees.  These scarce pigeons, which are anything but plain (clad in plum and russet with a pale iris and whitish leading edge to the wing) are found on multiple islands in the Greater Antilles but are nowhere common, and it is encouraging to see that the reintroduction efforts underway in Puerto Rico are being successful. We generally finish the trip list with Plain Pigeons but this year as we were arriving into the southern reaches of San Juan we were surprised to see a flock of three, and then a single Blue-and-Yellow Macaw crossing the highway.  Unmistakable and gorgeous these huge parrots have persisted for years around San Juan and have been breeding for many years, just one more tropical exotic that has found the island of Puerto Rico to their liking!  We capped the trip off with dinner at a local Cuban/Puerto Rican restaurant, having recorded 126 species during the 5 day trip, and encountering all 19 possible endemics (including the Pewee and Loggerhead Kingbird which should both soon be split).  The 2017 tour marks my last WINGS tour to Puerto Rico, a place I have enjoyed visiting annually since 2008.  I leave the tour now in the capable hands of Evan Obercian, who was a great help to have along this year as co-leader, and will certainly miss my annual visits to the sunny Caribbean.

Updated: May 2017