21 - 28 January 2009
by Olaf Soltau
Many thanks go to all of those who have contributed to the
impressive number of Puerto Rico birding trip reports available on the
web. They all helped a great deal, especially the more recent reports
Brenner (2007), Jennifer
Rycenga and Peggy Macres (2006), and Jim
Hully (2004). Since these reports already include excellent,
detailed directions that haven’t changed much, if at all, I decided to
write a summary that emphasizes updates and changes, rather than repeat
all of the information that’s already provided by the other authors.
Some of the changes and updates mentioned in the following pages are:
o Closure of PR 9966 at El Yunque, which used to connect 191 and 186.
o Temporary closure of Humacao Visitor Center due to road construction—and how to still access the lagoons
o Access to El Yunque via 191 from the south, and what to find there
o Directions to Laguna Cartagena—which trails to take, which one to avoid
o Alternative spots to look for Puerto Rican Nightjar along 334 at Guanica Dry Forest
o Contact information for Adrian Muniz, the helpful and knowledgeable manager of Maricao State Forest
o Roads that exist only on maps, not in reality, on Vieques’ East End
o Birding spots on Vieques
Credit for the overall trip idea goes to Joe Thompson, who planned a long weekend in Puerto Rico’s southwest corner to fill in a few remaining gaps on his list of island endemics. After he invited me to come along, I built my own, longer itinerary around his to catch up with island specialties, this being my first visit to Puerto Rico. Six full days were more than enough to find all target birds. My ever-patient, semi-birding partner Steve joined me for the first few days on the eastern part of the island, then moved on to Vieques while I continued birding with Joe in southwestern Puerto Rico. At the end of the trip, I met up with Steve on Vieques for a day of light birding and island exploration before flying back home.
I relied on two field guides and found both of them very useful: A Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, by Herbert A. Raffaele, and Puerto Rico's Birds in Photographs, by Mark W. Oberle. The latter comes with a CD-ROM that has extra photos and sound recordings.
Road maps were of limited use. The Puerto Rico Roads Map by Metrodata gave a sufficient bigger-picture overview but some of the smaller, secondary roads shown on the map—especially southwest of Laguna Cartagena and along the western edge of El Yunque—did not seem to exist once we got to these locations. Still, a map like this was essential for trip preparation and route planning, and it was also far more detailed than the map provided by Hertz at the airport. To my surprise, the map/GPS function of my iPhone helped us navigate through the confusing centers of smaller towns on several occasions, and cell phone reception was excellent in most areas we visited. On Vieques, neither iPhone nor local freebie maps could keep us from getting lost in the island’s East End.
A big thanks goes to Michael Duffy, who was nice enough to let me take along his meticulous notes from a prior PR trip—I hope they were still meticulous when I returned them.
Wednesday, January 21 - San Juan Airport to Ceiba
Our Continental flight from Newark arrived with a slight delay around 3:00 p.m., but within an hour we had gotten our luggage and picked up the rental car and were on the road to Ceiba. The first segment of the drive along Rt. 26 and 66 went smoothly, but then it continued on Route 3, a suburban-style boulevard with traffic lights and big-box stores. Late-afternoon rush hour traffic slowed us down further. At least the slow going meant that we could familiarize ourselves with the ubiquitous GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLES and GRAY KINGBIRDS. Finally, at Fajardo, the landscape took on a rural character and driving got better for the last few miles to Ceiba, especially as Route 3 turns into superhighway 52.
After a 90-minute drive, we pulled into the Ceiba Country Inn’s driveway and flushed a pair of ZENAIDA DOVES. After check-in, we birded the property and saw several SCALY-NAPED PIGEONS fly across the valley behind the inn. Then we heard a series of throaty cackling sounds that could only be… MANGROVE CUCKOO! Over the next half hour we saw three and heard several more from the surrounding hillsides. An ANTILLEAN MANGO visited the flowering neem trees above the parking lot. After dinner, around 9:00 p.m., it was time to visit with the resident PUERTO RICAN SCREECH-OWLS as they were calling from the trees right above the parking area, a perfect way to finish the first evening of successful PR birding.
Thursday, January 22 - El Yunque, North Side
Instead of heading straight for El Yunque, I decided to start the day by birding the inn property. I’m glad I did, because right there I saw my lifer PUERTO RICAN TODY, PUERTO RICAN WOODPECKER, GREATER ANTILLEAN ORIOLE and RED-LEGGED THRUSH. A male AMERICAN KESTREL perched on a palm tree stump nearby, and the ANTILLEAN MANGO was back feeding in the neem tree.
We left for El Yunque around 7:30a.m. and arrived at the park entrance half an hour later. We had planned to start at the top on Mount Britton trail, then bird our way down. But there were many distractions on the way up Rt. 191 too good to ignore. A PUERTO RICAN BULLFINCH called at the intersection with Rt. 988 and, after some effort, we managed to see the bird in the dense canopy. Next we noticed lots of bird activity at the parking lot before El Coco falls and found PUERTO RICAN TANAGERS, RED-LEGGED THRUSH, and PUERTO RICAN WOODPECKERS right along the road. Finally, at the top end of Rt. 191, we turned right on Forest Road 930 to reach Mt. Britton Trail. A PEARLY-EYED TRHASHER was singing away in the trees right above the road.
The lower section of Mt. Britton trail was very quiet, aside from a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH and a BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER. Several hummingbirds whizzed past but glimpses were too short for identification. Further up, where the trail joins the road, were several groups of PUERTO RICAN TANAGERS, another PUERTO RICAN BULLFINCH, and many PUERTO RICAN TODIES.
Along the Mt. Britton Spur Trail, in a scenic stretch of moss-covered elfin woods, a black and white warbler almost made my heart stop. But the more looks we got, the clearer it became that we were looking at a BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER, not the desired Elfin-Woods Warbler.
We had enjoyed Mt. Britton trail all to ourselves but around 11:00 a.m., on the way back down to the car, it got busy. We passed several families with teenagers determined to take the steep hike in flip-flops, and more than once we overhead the perennial, “Are we there yet?” Our early start had paid off.
At Yokahu tower, we spotted our first BLACK-WHISKERED VIREO in the canopy of a massive tree between parking lot and tower. Before we left the parking lot, a noisy pair of LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRDS caught our attention. Not bad, seeing two life birds in the middle of a tourist-filled parking lot at 1:00 in the afternoon.
The good luck continued at the El Portal Visitor Center’s Loop Trail where we enjoyed great views of PUERTO RICAN TODIES perched right along the path. A male PUERTO RICAN EMERALD buzzed in and drank droplets of water from the leaves of a vine. We could hardly believe our good luck when a pair of PUERTO RICAN LIZARD-CUCKOOS emerged from hiding and flew across a clearing. In the early afternoon, we checked a few more spots along Rt. 191 and added PUERTO RICAN SPINDALIS to the list.
Based on some other trip reports, I had limited expectations for birding El Yunque. But the crowds weren’t terrible and seemed to concentrate in a 3-hour window between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. El Portal Visitor Center and its Loop Trail were nearly deserted. I assume the policy of charging $3 to enter the visitor center area while access to all other park areas is free keeps visitors away from the center. The only big miss of the day was Elfin-Woods Warbler but those would be easier to find at Maricao State Forest later on in the trip.
With a few hours of daylight remaining, we explored Rt. 186, which skirts the western edge of the park. Puerto Rican Parrots have been occasionally reported around the abandoned Rio Espiritu overlook along this road. After crossing two bridges, we found the overlook to the right, now an overgrown parking lot with a row of concrete benches, some disappearing under a cover of weeds. We spent about 45 minutes looking and listening and found a good mix of species that we had seen earlier in the day—but no sign of parrots.
Before the trip, Joe and I had decided to leave PR Parrot off the target list. A thorough search would have been too time-consuming, chances for success were slim, and uncertainty whether the birds would be truly wild or a recent success from the breeding program raised further questions. Still, this didn’t mean that I wasn’t intrigued by the idea of seeing the bird… At around 5:00 p.m., about half a mile south of the National Park entrance sign along Rt. 186, I heard three distinct parrot-like calls. We brought the car to a screeching halt and hoped for more calls or any signs of movement, but there was only silence.
Road Closure: It is no longer possible to cut across from Rt. 191 to Rt. 186 via PR 9966. This road has been closed after a rockslide, at least that’s the official reason. A park ranger at El Portal said that Puerto Rican Parrots are still found along this road, which is also close to the captive-parrot breeding site. He added that the road closure might be a convenient way for park management to keep human traffic in the area to a minimum. But that, of course, is just speculation. For now it’s necessary to drive down to Rt. 3 to connect from one road to the other.
Friday, January 23 - Humacao and El Yunque’s South Side
I headed for Humacao in time for sunrise. My first stop was Unidad Madri, the lesser-visited part of the refuge along Rt. 925. Heading east on Rt. 3 (coming from Rt. 53) I overshot the left turn onto 925 because the road sign was missing. But, after realizing I had gone too far and a U-turn, there was a sign visible from the other direction. After a bit less than a mile/about 1.3 km north on Rt. 925, I found the gate to Unidad Madri on the right. As mentioned in earlier trip reports, the gate is still locked to keep cars out, so I squeezed through and walked on in.
The trail out into the grassy and marshy expanse was muddy and even flooded in parts, and wearing rubber boots would have been a good idea. At the first pond to the left, I enjoyed side-by-side comparisons of AMERICAN COOT and CARIBBEAN COOT. Other birds here included COMMON MOORHEN, TRICOLORED HERONS, SNOWY EGRETS, GREAT EGRETS, and a few LITTLE BLUE HERONS. A MERLIN flew across the vast field to the right of the trail, an OSPREY patrolled the pond, and a flock of CAVE SWALLOWS circled above. The pond’s water level was clearly higher than normal, in some spots spilling ankle-deep across the trail. The area behind the pond, reportedly a good place for Yellow-breasted Crake, now looked like a flooded rice paddy.
The large lagoon came into view to the left of the trail. Open water in some areas, covered by reeds and grasses in others, it held WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS, RUDDY DUCKS and BLUE-WINGED TEALS. BLACK-FACED GRASSQUITS darted back and forth among groups of small trees at the near lagoon’s edge. BLACK-NECKED STILTS and GREATER YELLOWLEGS were foraging in the shallow water, and LEAST SANDPIPERS and SPOTTED SANDPIPERS moved along the edges. A SORA flew up into view just as I scoped through the ducks.
On the fairly long loop walk around the lagoon, I heard the song of my first ADELAIDE’S WARBLER of the trip, but it stayed hidden from view behind a row of trees. Along the north side of the lagoon, in the drier grass, several YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUITS popped up. I finally heard the call of a YELLOW-BREASTED CRAKE but the bird remained hidden in the grass. Walking back to the car, I added WHITE-WINGED DOVES and SMOOTH-BILLED ANIS to the day list.
I had to disrupt the birding program to deal with a blown tire. Some of Puerto Rico’s secondary roads offer an impressive variety of potholes, and one of them was just too much for my small Hertz rental SUV. I didn’t want to continue this tightly-timed trip without a working spare tire since the chances for another flat seemed high. I headed back to Ceiba with its repair shops and gas stations, just to find out that the tire was beyond repair.
After picking up Steve at the inn, we explored the nearby southern end of Rt. 191 as it heads into the mountains of El Yunque. Some maps still show PR 191 as a continuous road, but a portion near El Yunque peak was closed to traffic years ago, so there’s no way to drive all the way through the park from north to south.
The southern section of Rt. 191 is another bumpy affair as it winds up into the mountains past Casa Cubuy Ecolodge until ending at a barricade, where we parked and continued on foot. The day before, I had asked three different rangers at El Yunque’s headquarters for information about hiking trails on the park’s south side and had received three very different answers. Sticking to roadside birding struck me as the best option given the confusion and lack of good maps. The vistas were beautiful: lush rainforest and picture-perfect waterfalls framed the bright green coastal plains down to the Caribbean Sea. The birds weren’t as abundant as hoped for, but we had good looks at PUERTO RICAN TANAGER, PUERTO RICAN BULLFINCH and PUERTO RICAN TODY. Overall, it was an attractive spot for a hike and a picnic lunch, but not a particularly outstanding place for birds.
In the afternoon, we headed back down to Humacao, this time for the visitor center on Rt. 3. I had heard rumors that the center is still closed until further notice—and so it was. The gate was open but construction crews were rebuilding the road and it didn’t seem wise to walk among heavy, moving machinery. Fortunately, there was a way around this mess. As described in other reports, it’s possible to park in front of the visitor center fence and walk along Rt. 3 heading east. Just past the visitor center is a small bridge crossing a mangrove channel. On the other side of the bridge, on the right, is an open gate in a chain-link fence, the beginning of a scenic but garbage-strewn path through a palm forest that locals use to walk to the beach. This path meets up with a dirt road—which is exactly the road that leads from the visitor center to the ponds/lagoons that we wanted to reach. The walk took only about 10 minutes from Rt. 3 to the first lagoon, and we had the whole reserve to ourselves. But, just like at Unidad Madri earlier in the day, water levels were high and parts of the road along the lagoons were flooded.
Unfortunately, it was a quiet afternoon at Humacao, and only a few herons and egrets stalked the mangroves. On the upside, a family of PUERTO RICAN WOODPECKERS let us approach closely. We were the only human visitors around, and massive iguanas slid from trees along the water right into the lagoon to escape from us intruders, disrupting the silence with loud splashes. We left wondering how much those iguanas could to be blamed for the absence of birds, in addition to my choice of arriving here at a bad birding time of day.
Saturday, January 24 - La Parguera, Laguna Cartagena, Bouqueron Bird Sanctuary and Guanica Dry Forest
The day started with a short drive from Ceiba to Fajardo, where I dropped Steve off at the ferry to Vieques, then drove to San Juan Airport to pick up Joe. There was little traffic along Rt. 3 around 8:00 on this Saturday morning, and I got to the airport with plenty of time to deal with the tire issue before Joe would arrive. In contrast to a bad service experience on the phone the day before, the Hertz staff at the rental center couldn’t have been more accommodating and let me exchange the rental car without hassle or fees.
Joe arrived in time on an overnight flight from Los Angeles, and at 10:30 a.m. we were in our way to Guanica. In a refreshing contrast to Rt. 3 in the northeast, traveling south along superhighway Rt. 52 was smooth and scenic. Not far from the town of Cayey we noticed a flock of TREE SWALLOWS, a species that’s considered rare but increasing on Puerto Rico.
About two hours later, earlier than expected, we arrived in the Guanica area. We headed straight to the village of La Parguera, about 20 minutes further down the road. First stop was the local hardware store and its famous bird feeders, which we found after a short drive west on Rt. 304, the road that parallels the mangrove shoreline. Some trip reports call it a hardware store, others a grocery store. It’s actually both: “Ferreteria” is written on the building but they also sell groceries. The feeders and a bird-bath fountain are somewhat hidden in the row of trees and shrubs to the left of the building.
We were still parking the car when we saw a flock of about 20 YELLOW-SHOULDERED BLACKBIRDS at the birdbath. This was a great moment for Joe, as this rare and extremely localized species became his life bird 8,000.
We spent a long time watching the blackbirds, studying the varying degrees at which they can display the yellow patches on their shoulders. More common feeder visitors included SHINY COWBIRD and RINGED TURTLE-DOVE.
After a quick celebratory lunch we headed for Laguna Cartagena. As other authors have noted, the drive is confusing, requiring several turns at some poorly-marked intersections. While some maps show that Rt. 305 continues west, parallel to the Laguna’s south shore, it actually dead-ends at the intersection with Rt. 303. Here are the directions that worked for us: From La Parguera, we headed north on 304, turned left onto 305, turned right onto 303, then left on 101. After about 2.5 miles/4 km, we turned left at the intersection with Rt. 306. For reassurance, there’s also a large sign for Laguna Cartagena NWR at this turn.
There are several entrances to the refuge along Rt. 306, all to the left of the road. First, there’s a path through an opening in the fence not far from the intersection with 101, marked by a refuge sign. Prior visitors had warned that this trail does not lead to the lagoon itself and should be avoided. So we kept driving down Rt. 306, flushing ORANGE-CHEEKED WAXBILLS, NUTMEG MANNAKINS and COMMON GROUND-DOVES along the way.
Originally, we had planned to drive down Rt. 306 until we reached the parking area and the trail that leads to the observation tower, but the lagoon’s water level was high and promising areas of open water beckoned. Instead of driving all the way to the main parking area, we stopped where the road crosses a culvert. From there, a short trail leads out to a point with a small observation blind were we quickly found my main target bird for the area, WEST INDIAN WHISTLING DUCK. Other sightings included CARIBBEAN COOT, GLOSSY IBIS, BLACK-NECKED STILT, PURPLE GALLINULE, SMOOTH-BILLED ANI, and several SORA calling from the marsh. Back on Rt. 306, we drove a few hundred yards more just to see the official parking area, but since we had already found the target birds we turned around and headed toward Bouqueron.
Our next stop was the Boqueron Bird Sanctuary along Rt. 301 at KM 1.1, a possible site for Lesser Antillean Pewee. Unfortunately, the staff members at the parking lot told us politely but firmly that we couldn’t go any further since it was hunting season. Joe and I made the best of things by slowly birding our way back along the entrance road. PUERTO RICAN FLYCATCHER and YELLOW WARBLER were new for the trip list, and, as in most places on the island, GRAY KINGBIRDS seemed to be everywhere.
It was late afternoon and time to head to Guanica Dry Forest to study the lay of the land before darkness. We wanted to be well prepared for one of our biggest endemic targets of the trip, Puerto Rican Nightjar. Little did we know then how much effort would have to go into finding this bird.
We drove up Rt. 334 through the village of Carenero (some maps refer to it as Maria Antonia instead, go figure…) until we arrived at the Guanica State Forest gate, closed at this time of day. As we continued up the road on foot, we heard PUERTO RICAN LIZARD CUCKOO, PUERTO RICAN TODY, PEARLY-EYED THRASHER, ADELAIDE’S WARBLER, and PUERTO RICAN BULLFINCH, all birds that we saw repeatedly right along this part of Rt. 334 over the next 24 hours. We also got close looks at a MANGROVE CUCKOO that quietly watched us from a thicket close to the road.
According to earlier trip reports, the area around the first sharp curve to the left past the gate was a good spot to see nightjars, and so we stood there listening to the sounds of the dry forest as it was slowly getting darker. Around 6:40 p.m., we heard the first call of a nightjar from the hillside above. Then a second one chimed in. But they called far from the road, higher up in the hillside, and didn’t seem to move. After endless minutes of listening and straining our eyes in the twilight, Joe and I debated whether we should move further uphill to improve our chances of seeing one of them fly. And then disaster struck: a staff meeting or party had ended at park headquarters further up the hill, and a stream of about 20 cars slowly proceeded down the road, each of them blinding us with headlights, and each of them causing the nightjars to fall silent. By the time all cars had passed it was around 6:55 p.m., and the nightjars were turning quiet for the evening.
Frustrated, we walked up the road for another mile or so, hoping to spot a flyby nightjar with our flashlights. But there was nothing except occasional, brief nightjar calls from distant spots in the hills. After an hour of walking through the quiet night, we headed back to the car and came up with a different plan for the next morning.
Sunday, January 25 – Guanica Dry Forest, Maricao State Forest and Cabo Rojo
Plan B for finding PR Nightjar was getting up at 4:00 a.m. and driving along Rt. 333 along the coastline until it dead-ends. We knew from other trip reports that the birds had been found along this stretch in the early morning hours. For about 90 minutes we slowly drove back and forth, shining our flashlights into shrubs and trees and listening for calls. Thoughts of reputed drug smuggling activity in the area added to the excitement. Actually, it was the only excitement we got—we didn’t even hear a single nightjar during this operation.
With a bit of darkness left, we high-tailed it back to Guanica Dry Forest’s main entrance at Rt. 334 and tried our luck again at the same spot as the night before. Things sounded promising as we walked up the road just before 6:00 a.m. to an early dawn chorus of PUERTO RICAN SCREECH-OWL and, yes, the calls of nightjars. But in a replay of the night before, the birds would call but not fly, as far as we could tell. We were tired and disappointed, but at least the over-the-top calls of PUERTO RICAN LIZARD CUCKOOS still made us laugh.
Around 8:00 a.m., we were mountain-bound to Maricao State Forest. I was hoping to catch up with some species I had missed at El Yunque, and Joe was happy to revisit endemics and places he had seen during a prior PR trip. Thankfully, after a disappointing early morning, the visit to the mountains became a complete success—and a harbinger for the good luck that would follow us for the rest of the day.
Before we even reached Maricao State Forest, at a grassy turnout along Rt. 120 at KM 11, we found a mixed flock that included PUERTO RICAN VIREO and, finally, ELFIN-WOODS WARBLER. At Maricao State Forest Headquarters, we were fortunate to meet Adrian Muniz, the forest manager. Several PR birding trip reports describe him as knowledgeable and helpful, and I can only agree. After thoughtful questions about our prior trip sightings and remaining targets, Adrian walked us to a group of flowering trees where we saw GREEN MANGO and PUERTO RICAN EMERALD.
Adrian was pleased to hear that he is mentioned in several birding trip reports and encouraged me to pass on his contact information to visiting birders, even via the Web (since he doesn’t have an email address, he doesn’t have to worry about spam):
Maricao State Forest Manager
P.O. Box 365
Maricao, PR 00606-0365
Office phone: 787-838-1040/1045
Cell phone: 787-378-8850
As of January 2009, Adrian plans to keep his position for another year before retirement, which to him means working full-time at his organic coffee plantation.
We saw a great sampler of regional specialties right from the forest headquarters parking lot, including PUERTO RICAN WOODPECKER, RED-LEGGED THRUSH, ELFIN-WOODS WARBLER, PUERTO RICAN TANAGER, and GREATER ANTILLEAN ORIOLE.
Things had quieted down by late morning but Joe and I tried our luck, walking along a few trails close to park headquarters. Here we finally saw the bird that had eluded us at Boqueron the day before, LESSER ANTILLEAN PEWEE, and heard several more in the area, all within walking distance from the parking lot.
After a pleasant lunch at Hacienda Juanita, just a few miles up the road from Maricao, we made our way back down into the lowlands toward Cabo Rojo. Coming down from the mountains via 105 and 119 was straightforward but, once back in the lowlands, it was a challenge to follow the main roads through the maze-like centers of scenic small towns along the way. Finally, we were just a few miles from the Cabo Rojo Lighthouse, where Rt. 301 turns into a dusty dirt road with lots of potholes. It was Sunday afternoon and traffic was heavy with beachgoers. Jeeps and SUVs were doing fine, but smaller sedans had to crawl along this stretch to avoid bottoming out. There were good numbers of WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAILS and BLACK-NECKED STILTS in the shallow water of the salt lagoons along the road. Walking from parking lot to lighthouse, we spotted two TROUPIALS perched on a shrub. The slow beach traffic had taken more time than expected, and we soon made our way back to the car, and back to Guanica.
Back at Guanica Dry Forest entrance, we walked further up Rt. 334 than the night before until we got to a long, straight stretch road of overhung by tree branches that struck Joe as perfect nightjar perches. Further up the hill, past a 90-degree curve to the left, we noticed a transformer station with a small communications tower next to it to the right of the road. There were also two big utility lights that we thought would be a draw for bugs and thus birds at night.
Then we noticed something else: on the ground, right in front of the building, was the corpse of a Puerto Rican Nightjar. There were no signs of insects feeding on the carcass, so the bird had not been dead for long. Ironically, this poor creature probably met its untimely demise the night before while we were down the road, desperate to see the bird alive.
It was almost 6:30 p.m., leaving us with just another 10 minutes to pick the best spot before the nightjars started calling again. From the transformer station, we walked back down the road for a few hundred yards, around the next curve, back to the spot where trees formed a canopy with suitable perches across the road. And then the show began. First one, then two, and soon three nightjars starting calling close to us. With great patience, knowing that we only had a brief window of time, Joe shone his flashlight into the thicket on the downhill side of the road from many different angles until finally he saw the eye shine of a PUERTO RICAN NIGHTJAR! We took turns holding the flashlight, and each of us got looks at the bird’s head and the characteristic white outer-tail feathers before it flew off.
Just like the night before, the nightjars turned quiet around 6:55 p.m.. We walked back up the road to the transformer station, expecting to find insects and birds drawn there by the lights. But, aside from very few bugs and a single PEARLY-EYED THRASHER, nothing stirred. Still, we finally had seen the most difficult target bird of the trip and the weight was off our shoulders! I can only speculate why the nightjars had given us such a hard time. There had been none of the active flying-around mentioned in other trip reports. Perhaps the new moon (i.e., its absence) and the small numbers of flying nocturnal insects had something to do with it.
The spot were we finally saw the nightjar is right in the center of the map.
On the walk back downhill we heard several PUERTO RICAN SCREECH-OWLS. At the last sharp curve above the gate, where we had encountered the car caravan from hell the night before, a screech-owl was calling from the trees right above the road. With the help of a strong flashlight, we found the bird perched up high in the canopy.
Monday, January 26 – Comerio and El Yunque
We had now seen every endemic target bird of the island (except the PR Parrot), which gave us spare time to look for another regional specialty before Joe was flying back to Los Angeles in the early afternoon: PLAIN PIGEON. We left Guanica around 7:00 a.m. and headed for to the famous ball field at Escuela Superior Sabana in Comerio on Rt. 172, about a mile/1.6 km south of the intersection with Rt. 156.
As soon as we arrived, around 9:00 a.m., we saw several Plain Pigeons feeding from the flowers of African Tulip Trees in the hillside across the road from the ball field. Crisp morning sunlight streamed through the valley and school children were playing ball as their proud parents watched, an idyllic scene that left us with the perfect memory of Comerio.
With a few hours to spare before Joe’s departure, we decided on a quick visit to El Yunque. On the Metrodata map, it looked like we could connect to Rt. 186 via a couple of smaller country roads from the west. But the road we tried dead-ended on someone’s farm. Instead, we bit the bullet and headed up to Rt. 3 with its traffic lights and strip malls, then took a quick spin up Rt. 191 to visit with the LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRDS at El Yunque’s Yokahu Tower. At the parking lot, Joe noticed a PEREGRINE FALCON flying overhead. Then it was time to drop off Joe at the airport and head for the Vieques ferry dock in Fajardo.
Tuesday, January 27 - Vieques
The lush landscaping at Hix Island House was a bird magnet, and I started the day watching ANTILLEAN CRESTED HUMMINGBIRD and GREEN-THROATED CARIB feed on hibiscus blossoms, all of this from the outdoor shower connected to our room. Both GRAY KINGBIRD and LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD were calling and in full view above our terrace, and over breakfast there I added MANGROVE CUCKOOS, PUERTO RICAN WOODPECKERS, ADELAIDE’S WARBLERS and CARIBBEAN ELAENIAS to my Vieques list.
After breakfast, we drove to Green Beach at the eastern end of the island. We made at stop Kiani Lagoon around 10:00 a.m., where a boardwalk leads from the parking area through mangroves to open water. The only thing noticeable about bird life here was its total absence. While I had heard that this was a good spot for roosting wading birds at dusk and dawn, the lagoon was completely deserted in the middle of the morning.
After a short stop at Green Beach, we headed toward the town of Esperanza on Vieques’ south shore. The drive took almost an hour: there was a serious disconnect between the roads shown on our maps and those that truly existed. We had two different maps, both of the cutesy, hand-drawn kind that shops and car rental places hand out for free and that are full of ads for local businesses, but they were both useless in this part of the island. One of them showed a couple of bunkers as landmarks—but there were bunkers everywhere! Both maps showed roads above Playa Grande that we simply couldn’t find or that dead-ended unexpectedly. It made more sense to retrace our route to the north shore, follow Rt. 200, and then cut across the island via. Rt. 995, 201 and 996 to Esperanza.
ADELAIDE’S WARBLER is surprisingly common on Vieques—at least it was to me—given that this bird is easier to see in the western, more distant, half of Puerto Rico than the nearby eastern half. As long as there was habitat with shrubs and some trees, and that’s still the case on much of Vieques, there was warbler song in the air.
In Esperanza, at the office of Vieques Conservation & Historical Trust, staff member Mark Martin gave us directions to two promising birding spots, both near Sun Bay Beach just east of Esperanza. Sun Bay Beach is a public-park-like affair with a vast parking lot and a chain-link fence. Mark assured that the gate always stayed open, important for those who want to visit the area on spring or summer evenings to look for Antillean Nighthawk or check out the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay at night, which can be reached via a bumpy dirt road that starts at the eastern end of Sun Bay Beach.
Our first Sun Bay stop were the salt flats, which took some effort to find as they are hidden from view by mangroves. Following Mark’s directions, we drove into the Sun Bay parking area, then hung a left and followed the 4-foot chain link fence. There are several holes in the fence, and we randomly picked one and climbed through and followed a trail through the mangrove forest until the vast salt flats opened up ahead. Large numbers of shorebirds were foraging far out in the flats. Without a spotting scope, I could only identify BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, SEMIPALMATED PLOVER, and LEAST SANDPIPER but I suspect there were other species out there. If I ever find myself on Vieques again, I’ll make sure to return to this spot, better prepared with a scope, rubber boots, and lots of insect repellent.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the peninsula between Sun Bay and Mosquito Bay via the dirt road that starts at the east end of Sun Bay Beach’s parking lot. Media Luna, a smaller bay on this peninsula, was the most scenic spot of our visit and offered good snorkeling. Later in the season, when Antillean Nighthawk returns, the area along the western side of Media Luna Bay offers a good chance to see this bird, according to Mark.
On a non-birding note, an evening boat ride and swim in bioluminescent Mosquito Bay was our favorite moment on Vieques. The tour operator used a low-impact, electric pontoon boat. According to several guidebooks, this bay is in much better shape than the bioluminescent bay at La Parguera, in the Southwest of Puerto Rico, where a number of less eco-friendly tour boats is said to have contributed to the decline of bioluminescent organisms. A Fishing Bat was among the more interesting wildlife sightings, along with the glowing outlines of fish that swam through the bioluminescent waters.
Wednesday, January 28 - El Yunque
Most of the day’s program was devoted to getting home, and we left Vieques extra early to allow for ferry service delays, which are said to happen often. But the boat was on schedule, giving us some spare time between the port town of Fajardo and San Juan airport, enough for a final walk of the Loop Trail at El Yunque’s El Portal visitor center. As we pulled into the parking lot, around noon, a flock of MONK PARAKEETS flew overhead.
It started to drizzle and the Loop Trail was very quiet. With some effort, we managed to see our last PUERTO RICAN TODIES and RED-LEGGED THRUSHES of the trip, but our productive walk here six days earlier seemed like a mirage now. Then we were off to San Juan airport, ready for our smooth four-hour flight back home, less ready for another two months of Northeast winter.
Car rental information:
About three months before the trip, I reserved a compact SUV from Hertz at a reasonable AAA rate of $40/day, the best deal I could find. The toll-free road side emergency phone numbers were useless when I called for advice about the blown tire: the first number provided by Hertz didn’t service the company anymore, the second operator spoke no English and put me on hold for a long time until I hung up. In contrast, the staff at Hertz’s San Juan airport branch couldn’t have been more efficient and helpful when I pulled up to switch rental cars—it was clearly not the first time this had happened to a customer.
Ceiba Country Inn, Ceiba
Carr 977 KM 1.2
PO Box 1067
Ceiba, PR 00735
Toll Free: 888-560-2816
Known for its resident Puerto Rican Screech-Owls and friendly dogs, a reasonably-priced base of operations for Eastern PR. The birding on the property itself exceeded expectations, including several endemic and non-endemic life birds. Run by Sue Newbauer and Dick Bray, both originally from New England.
No website, but reservations can be made by phone or via expedia.com.
Mimi’s Guest House, Guanica
We opted for this place based on great reviews on tripadvisor.com. In hindsight, the nearby Mary Lee’s By-the-Sea (a birders’ favorite for the area) would have probably been a better choice for our particular needs as birders. The trouble with Mimi’s included friendly but noisy socializing between innkeepers and other guests until late in the evening, followed by incessant dog barking from the neighbor’s property that started in the very early morning hours, leaving little quiet time for sleep. The massive metal driveway gate had a tendency to ignore the remote control, forcing us to wake our hosts on the last morning so that we could get out.
Hix Island House, Vieques
A smart collection of discrete, concrete loft-style buildings best described as upscale eco-chic. Nice place to unwind at the end of the trip. Good mix of birds on and around the property. It was easy to find Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Green-throated Carib, which I had missed on Puerto Rico.