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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Puerto Rico

2023 Narrative

Day 1: We enjoyed a tasty welcome dinner and group introductions before turning in for an early evening.

Day 2: We left the hotel dark and early, making our way westward along the north shore of the island. After exiting the highway we were serenaded by the sounds of Red-legged Thrushes and the dawn calls of Gray Kingbird all the way to Cambalache State Forest. As we arrived the dawn chorus was in full swing, the air filled with the sounds of Bananaquits, the cardinal-sounding Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Black-whiskered Vireo, Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, and many others. We enjoyed a field breakfast as we sorted through all of the morning bird songs. As we gathered to make our way up the trail we encountered a small flock of Puerto Rican Orioles feeding in a fruiting Gumbo Limbo tree. Up the trail we were knocking off new birds left and right: Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Adelaide’s Warbler, Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Puerto Rican Tody, and “Puerto Rican” Loggerhead Kingbird. We even caught up with a couple Magnolia Warblers in dense shrubs near the parking area. After hearing them all morning we had fabulous views of a Lizard-Cuckoo near the parking area, along with a brilliant Green Mango. A Puerto Rican Woodpecker, and a female Spindalis gave a quick show. After a lovely seaside lunch we drove to Guajataca with a brief stop at a small roadside pond where we saw Blue-winged Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, Glossy Ibis and others. At Guajataca Overlook we watched the White-tailed Tropicbirds doing aerial flight displays over the ocean while a pair of Adelaide’s Warblers sang right overhead.

Day 3: We had another early morning today in order to make it into the center of the island to the Rio Abajo State Forest, a tract of protected land that has become the last stronghold of the Puerto Rican Parrot, arguably the island’s most imperiled endemic bird species. What a wonderful surprise to encounter two parrots moments after we arrived, flying-by and dropping into a nearby palm and proceeding to feed on palm fruits while hanging upside down right over our heads. After a nice breakfast of palm fruits the parrots loafed around in a nearby tree before flying off into the forest. Meanwhile a pair of Puerto Rican Orioles were carrying caterpillars into a nearby nest and we stopped to enjoy them for a while before continuing up the trail towards the center of the preserve. Puerto Rican Todys dotted the trail for much of the walk, some sitting out in the open for us to enjoy unobstructed. A pair of Puerto Rican Vireos made a brief appearance, bouncing through the foliage overhead but never coming in for prolonged views. Further down the trail a male Puerto Rican Spindalis sat near the top of a large tree allowing for fabulous scope views for all. Shortly after starting up the trail Lee spotted a small raptor cutting through a break in the forest, sadly we didn’t all get a look but given the nature of the sighting we predicted it was a brief sighting of the Puerto Rican Broad-winged Hawk, which breeds in lush mountain forests far from human habitation. This raptor has seen massive declines in population over the last few decades, now numbering in the hundreds at best. After another ten minutes had passed we all got a second, though still brief view, of an adult Broad-winged Hawk overhead, marking the last of today’s main target birds. With rain in the offing we started back towards the vehicles, enjoying more views of some of the island’s more abundant endemics. At the parking area we encountered a very bold Puerto Rican Pewee who sat in the open for all to view.

After a long lunch we began winding our way up into the island’s western mountains toward the small town of Maricao. We did a bit of birding and then retired to the lovely Hacienda Juanita where a flowering Ceiba in the courtyard attracted multiple Venezuelan Troupials, Pearly-eyed Thrashers, and better views of the endemic Green Mango than the day before. Some folks encountered Puerto Rican Emeralds on the grounds during our break before dinner. After dinner and sunset we gathered to search for the only endemic owl on the island, the Puerto Rican Owl. It wasn’t long before we heard a pair vocalizing at the far end of the grounds but it took some work before they finally took the spotlight, perching for prolonged views while singing and flying through the treetops overhead.

Day 4: It was another early morning, enjoying coffee just before sunup and getting in place near the highest point in the Maricao State Forest for the chances at the endemic subspecies of Sharp-shinned Hawks displaying at sunrise - no luck, but it was a nice sunrise in the forest. Our first prolonged birding stop was near the ranger station in the Maricao State Forest, home of the Elfin-woods Warbler, a species described to science in 1976. Bird activity was low in general at the first stop but we enjoyed close views of Puerto Rican Tanagers feeding in a berrying melastome, this species is the sole member of the island’s only endemic family Nesospingidae. A pair of Puerto Rican Emeralds zipped about in the trees overhead, while a small flock of American Redstarts, a Black-throated Blue-Warbler and a Northern Paula moved through the treetops. We heard our first Elfin-woods Warblers but they were far enough downslope that we couldn’t get any views. At our next stop all of that changed when two male Elfin-woods Warblers were flitting about as we stepped out of the vehicle, catching caterpillars and staying at, or below eye-level, for the next 30 mins, providing prolonged views and opportunities for photos. Any photo of this species is a good one as they tend to be very secretive, sticking to the dense vegetation, and moving constantly.

A short ways downslope we stopped to search for Antillean Euphonia at a reliable forest patch below a fruit farm. Shortly after exiting the vehicle there was a Euphona singing loudly from just upslope. We followed a small dirt road up to find a very lovely Australian couple playing the Euphonia vocalizations on full blast from their speaker. They hadn’t heard them all morning. We walked back downslope to a historically productive spot, after a short while we could hear a real pair calling from a nearby tree patch. I managed to whistle them into view and shortly after they flew into a large spreading tree draped in epiphytes and led us straight to their nest tucked safely into the center of a ball moss, the male stood watch while the female went inside to work on the nest’s innards. The male flew off and we never saw her again.

After a bit of a drive downslope we stopped in Mayagüez to for lunch and then made a trip to an old dock nearby that now functions as a tern roost. The pylons were covered in hundreds of Sandwich Terns, including one representative of the “Cayenne” form from the northern coast of South America, a few Royal and Common terns, and the whole reason we came here in the first place, two vagrant White-winged Terns, representing two of less than five records ever for Puerto Rico.

In the late afternoon we visited a small urban pond just outside Playa Combate which hosts a flock of the endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds. It’s simple, you drive past the pond, park next to the baby cow on a rope, and look west to a small home that feeds birds and offers a bird bath. We enjoyed watching the blackbirds and troupials squabble over feeding rights. Some of us pet the cow because we couldn’t resist.

After checking in at the lovely Turtle Bay Inn we had some dinner and headed to a nearby hotspot for the endemic Puerto Rican Nightjar. It wasn’t long before we could hear one singing nearby, I quickly located it through a narrow window giving views into the back of the trees. After everyone was able to get a view it moved to an even closer branch overhead and sat with its tail partially spread to make sure we could appreciate the expansive white in the outer tail feathers, signifying that this was a male of the species. It was a long day but the nightjar represented the last of the Puerto Rican endemics for the trip - high fives and happy faces all around!

Day 5: With a long few days behind us I made the morning bird walk optional but everybody showed up with smiling faces. We enjoyed an easy stroll in the nearby mangroves of Parguera where we watched “Caribbean” Clapper Rails running around in the open and had incredibly close views of the “Golden” Yellow Warbler. We circled back to the hotel and enjoyed a delicious hot breakfast before heading out for a drive to a local salt pond and some rice farms. The salt pans held a mix of shorebirds, including our only Whimbrels and Willets of the trip. Birding was a bit slow near the rice farms but we found both a Merlin and a Peregrine Falcon, and caught up with Orange-cheeked Waxbills and Northern Orange Bishops, two of the island’s many introduced species that have taken hold and are successfully breeding. After Rice Tech we headed southwest for our first taste of Laguna Cartagena NWR, where we counted 23 West Indian Whistling-Ducks and a large migrant flock of Ring-necked Ducks, with a few Lesser Scaups and Northern Shovelers tossed in for variety. Near the town of Playa Combate we had an up-close look at a Caribbean Elaenia and we watched a flock of Monk Parakeets in a seaside tree grove and found a small group of Semipalmated Sandpipers. With the afternoon sun beating down we decided to take a siesta and head back out in the evening. Sundown at Laguna Cartagena was fabulous with no fewer than five Least Bitterns hunting in the aquatic vegetation along the lake shore. We heard a Yellow-breasted Crake but saw nothing more than some wiggling cattails.

Day 6: Just like that we were gearing up for our final day of birding. We had breakfast and said goodbye to Turtle Bay Inn. We pointed our van east and headed along the coast to a well-known fried chicken joint that hosts reliable Antillean Crested Hummingbirds in the flowering shrubs across the road. We waited for about 15 minutes before our first and only sighting of this lovely little hummingbird. We enjoyed views for the better part of a minute as it fed meticulously at each flower, poking its short bill into the base of the flower rather than burying its head deep in the bloom, much like a flowerpiercer would. From here we checked a nearby beach for plovers but recent rains flooded the only dry route out to the point, and my attempt at building a bridge from an old tire and a rusted refrigerator door was a failure. We ditched the coast and headed for the Central Mountains to a small community where Plain Pigeon can be reliably found from the local baseball field. We arrived in the heat of the day but my attempts at hooting their White-winged Dove-like call were successful and it wasn’t long before a Plain Pigeon made a close circle of our group, landing in a nearby eucalyptus tree for a closer look of the pigeon-wannabe. Crossing San Juan is always an adventure, but we missed the bulk of rush hour and made it without too much struggle. At a small community garden/plant nursery we watched four Green-throated Caribs battling over the bright orange blooms of the Cordia rickseckeri tree. This was the final Caribbean specialty of the tour and a life bird for nearly everyone. We returned to the airport hotel, enjoyed a peaceful dinner where we shared our favorite moments of the tour. After hugs all around we said our goodbyes. The Caribbean life has a way of getting into your soul and we all left feeling grateful for our little chunk of time in the Caribbean sun, with friends, new and old, celebrating fabulous and unique bird life.

                                                                                                                                                                 -     Raymond VanBuskirk

Created: 31 March 2023