23 - 28 March 1998
by Walt Wilson
The following is a brief summary of my recent visit to Puerto Rico. This was my first visit to this island, so I concentrated on the endemic and Caribbean species, as well as enjoying the many other things there are to do. My significant other, who is a beginning birder, was unable to join me for business reasons until my second day out there. So, I did my "hard-core" birding my first day and was able to see or hear all the endemics except the parrot. I concentrated on the SW coast. Pursuing the PR Parrot in the NW mountains did not seem to be a good use of time given all else there was to do and the low likelihood of seeing the bird. I spent the next few days touring around, jogging, hiking, kayaking, and enjoying the birds over and over again. I did not go out of my way to seek pelagic, shorebird, or waterfowl species, so there is very little info regarding their occurrence and abundance. For the purposes of brevity in this summary, I am including notes primarily on the endemics or special birds only.
March 23, 1998
Arrived late in San Juan. Drove to Mary Lee's by the Sea in Guanica, about a two and a half hour drive. Went to sleep at 1:30 am. It is hot here.
March 24, 1998
5am: Drove to the end of Rte 333 before light to try for PR Nightjar, but it was quite windy, so I went to the gate to the Dry Forest on rte 334, where the air was quite still. I parked and walked up the road in the dark. Magical. The Nightjars started cranking it up within a few minutes, at about 5:40 am, and within a hundred yards of the gate. Hard to be sure, but I probably had 5 birds in the half mile after the gate before the road starts switchbacking up the hill. Also heard Mangrove Cuckoo, and a PR Screech Owl right at the gate, (must be attracted to the bugs at the street light there), and numerous roosters from the adjacent rural neighborhoods. As it got light I heard three different Lizard Cuckoos calling on the hillsides. I used a tape briefly and had a bird circle me slowly from the brush, allowing partial looks. Finally it came out into a more open spot and called. Be ready for this 'cause its a loud, but awesome experience. In the gathering light I was able to make out Adelaide's Warbler and PR Bullfinch and several grassquits. Being totally tuned in to all the ever-changing forest sounds, I noticed this almost train-like din suddenly increasing all around me. Took my sleepy head a few minutes to realize it was the bees getting to work, jillions of them, in the flowering trees. Didn't hang around too long as I wanted to take a shot at the Elfin Woods Warbler, knowing that I would be back at Guanica in the days to come.
8:30 am: Drove to Maricao SF, seeing Caribbean Martins on the way on wires in the town of Sabana Grande. Stopped at PR 120 km 16.2. Totally the place to be, at least that day. At first I tried hiking the area to see what's around, but it became clear that simply sitting in the clearing/parking/picnic area under the two flowering trees was the thing to do. Staying there, the birds came to me and, being in a clearing, were more easy to observe and I made extensive use of my scope. Met two excellent birders, Tim and Pam Keller, who had been on the island for more than a week. In short order they helped me get up to speed on all these new birds. Birds seen here included Black-Cowled Oriole, PR Emerald, Green Mango, PR Tody, PR Tanager, Stripe-headed Tanager, PR Bullfinch, PR Woodpecker (heard frequently and seen briefly), Red Legged Thrush, Lesser Antillean Pewee. At about 10:30, we had a Black and White Warbler doing its usual thing along the tree branches overhead. A few minutes later, while trying to get better looks at a PR Vireo in some tangles 5 to 15 feet high, had an Elfin Woods Warbler working the same area. Nice comparison to the B & W Warbler. The EW Warbler must have been an immature, matching nicely to the Raffaele illustration showing a shade less dark than the adult. Left around noon, stopping at the antennas nearby and had Loggerhead Kingbird.
2:30 pm: After cleaning up a bit back at Mary Lee's, I stopped briefly at the Guanica Dry Forest Headquarters at the end of PR 334 just to see what it is like: very quiet and hot. Did see a sleepy looking and silent PR Flycatcher.
3:30 pm: I drove PR 116 to Parguera and had Loggerhead Kingbird at two different spots alongside the road. I thought they were mountain/forest birds and did not expect to see them here through this dry forest and mixed grassland habitat. Stopped at La Villa Parguera and saw several Yellow Shouldered Blackbirds on the grounds and in the area "in with the grackles". Also had nice male Antillean Mango working the flowers on the Parador grounds. On the drive back to Guanica along PR 116, saw three Troupials (two together) and several Anis.
6:00 pm: Quick stop at Playa Jaboncillo "Ravine Oasis" dirt road along 116 between Guanica and Mary Lee's. Fairly quiet: PR Tody and Vireo in the scrub as well as Yellow Crowned Night Heron by the water.
March 25, 1998
6:30 am: Quick stop at Balneario just west of Copamarina Hotel on PR 333 where I saw a PR Woodpecker fly across the road, but also had two duetting Caribbean Elaenia's, as well as Prairie and Northern Parula Warblers.
Not much birding. Enjoyed Sea-Kayaking out to and around some of the small mangrove islands offshore the Dry Forest area at Mary Lee's. Great fun. Went swimming and approached within 5 feet of a flock of Ruddy Turnstones on shore - funny how unwary they were to the low profile of our heads just above the water. Had Yellow Warbler there also in the Mangroves.
Also went for a run starting at the parking area at the end of PR 333. Awesome habitat. This oceanside trail starts out along intermittent, fairly secluded beaches. Within a half mile, the shoreline becomes rocky and cliffy and the flora changes immediately from a dry "forest", ten to fifteen feet high, to absolutely exquisite low arid scrub. It was explained to me that the onshore winds carry the salt spray generated by the waves crashing on the rocks. This keeps the vegetation "pruned" back forming this incredible landscape. Saw three more Troupials in about three miles out and three back. They drew my attention with their toots, beeps, and such even as I ran. Totally recommended as a hike or jog, but not as many birds as other places.
5:30 pm: Drove up to Hacienda Juanita near Maricao. Make sure to get your directions correct as it is shown inaccurately on at least two different maps I had. We had been warned, but what a tangle it would have been relying on the maps. Heard Lizard Cuckoo as soon as we got out of the car. Also heard the small tree frog, the Coqui everywhere. Had a great dinner at the Parador and heard the Screech Owls duetting, one at each of the street-type lamps.
March 26, 1998
6:30 am: Walked the short trail at Hacienda Juanita. Neat to be down in the rain forest with its 4-story bamboo and such, but the best birding by far was back up just west of the trailhead near a wood and shingle pile. Kind of a clearing area with good looks at a lot of the surrounding canopy that slopes down around you. Add the morning sun at your back and this is a great spot for seeing birds. Quickly had Black Throated Blue Warbler, Northern Parula and American Redstart. Heard the "jit-jit" of the Antillean Euphonia (sounded closer to the "beep-beep" of the cartoon Roadrunner) and then saw a male and female. Had to move fast with these quick beasts of the canopy. Also had a Mangrove Cuckoo struggling with a praying mantis-type bug that was half the cuckoo's length. PR and SH tanagers, Green Emerald and Mango, Red Legged Thrush, Pr Woodpecker, PR Tody, and Scaly Naped Pigeon were all easy there.
Preferring the beach environs, we said good-bye to Hacienda Juanita and headed back for another night at Mary Lee's. Stopped at km 16.2 on PR 120, but the were doing road repair on the picnic area's side road, and there was little bird life evident. Very different than my visit a couple of days earlier. After dropping off our stuff at Mary Lee's, we drove down to Boqueron Beach where we enjoyed a tranquil sunset and walk. Ate at the Copamarina Hotel near Mary Lee's. Very nice, excellent service, open late, and expensive.
March 27, 1998
6:30 am: parked at Guanica Forest gate on 334 to try to see Lizard Cuckoo again. Heard two or three calling, but none responded to tapes. Heard the usual suspects including Euphonia. Had great looks at PR Flycatcher. Also brief looks at Adelaides Warbler and PR Woodpecker. Still wanting to see Lizard Cuckoo, we drove to the end of PR 334, parked at the main area there, got out of the car and heard a Lizard Cuckoo cranking within 100 feet of us. We quietly tip toed toward that direction, taking ten minutes to move 75 feet, and saw a Lizard Cuckoo chowing down on these huge caterpillars. He did not move for at least five minutes as he grabbed one caterpillar after another, whipped each one back and forth to death, ate it, and repeated the process. Got great scope looks, kind of scary - imagine a Leica 77mm APO scope cranked up to 40 power from 25 feet. Anyway, another Lizard Cuckoo joined the original briefly before the pair left, only to be replaced by a pair of Mangrove Cuckoos who chose to display mating technique twice (imagine THOSE scope views). We watched them for about ten minutes before deciding that it couldn't get any better and left.
Drove to San Juan that afternoon after enjoying another run at the end of PR 333. Saw two Troupials this time. At about 3:30pm, detoured off the Autopista to Comerio through Cidra (bad, bad traffic). At km 1.5 on PR 172, I pulled over into the parking area for the Escuela Superior Sabana. There were Plain Pigeons everywhere; in the trees and flying over the ball field, apparently towards a roost as it was now about 4:30 pm. I stopped counting after fifteen or so and probably saw more than 25. Great scope looks for me and some of the neighborhood kids I befriended. My spanish is limited, especially when it comes to tech stuff on birds, but they seemed to understand the rarity of the "Paloma Ceniza". They even asked if I was a scientist working for the government. As noted by Mark Oberle in his 1995 trip report, the iris color was like that shown in Bond's books, not the amber color shown in the Raffaele guide (though I relied on Raffaele's book for most other situations).
I stayed in San Juan at one of the luxury high-rise hotels on the Condado. Nice, casino-like, and unsafe on the beach or street at night. Nice but not especially attractive for an eco-tourist type like myself.
March 28, 1998
8:30 am: went for a walk through Old San Juan and brushed by the outskirts of the Isla Verde Airport. Birds of note were two Red-legged Thrushes in a park in Old SJ. They were buzzed by a Merlin a few minutes later. Saw a few Monk Parakeets near the Airport entrance. Body surfed on the beach for a half hour then caught the plane home where the Colorado weather was also great: sunny, 60 degrees, and one-fifth the humidity
The roads were pretty good, the drivers quite aggressive but not too different than our bigger cities. Be ready to rock when you hit the roads, especially in the San Juan area, and you'll be OK.
I live in Colorado at 6,000 feet, spend a lot of time in the high mountains, and am used to intense sun and quick dehydration. However, I was surprised at how quick you get sunburned and how much water I had to take in to keep the fluid levels up. Though I adjusted pretty quick, it was hot, so be ready.
Personally, I am not into the urban or Casino scene, and greatly preferred naturally varied and beautiful, as well as much quieter, SW coast. I would recommend making Mary Lees by the Sea, by the ocean and surrounded by the Guanica Dry Forest, or Hacienda Juanita near Maricao in the mountains as bases for exploring the whole area depending on your taste for beaches and mangrove islands or rainforest, respectively. I did both, but spent more time at Mary Lees. Both are birder friendly, private, and secluded.
CO Springs, CO