13-17 February 2001
by Ron Hoff
My wife, Dollyann Myers and I decided to take a quick trip to Puerto Rico to try and find as many of the endemic and near-endemic birds as possible. After reading several trip reports, we decided that we would try it on our own to minimize our expenses. We were successful in locating 15 out of 16 (according to Mark Oberle’s new book) of these species. Our only miss was the Puerto Rican Parrot. This species is very rare, with only about 40-50 left in the wild and about 50 or so in captivity. I’ll go over each day and what new species we found each day. The complete species list will be at the end.
Tuesday, Feb. 13
We took a direct flight from Atlanta to San Juan, leaving about 1030 and arriving about 1430. I didn’t think PR was that far away until I later read that it is 1000 miles southeast of Miami. We rented a small car from Avis and drove to the Caribbean National Forest (called El Yunque) in the Luquillo Mountains. Avis actually gave us a small card with directions to what they refer to as the rain forest. It was quite helpful. The roads are in pretty good shape and sign-posted fairly well. We had no trouble finding highway 191, which is the main road going up into the park. Along the way we stopped at a grocery store to pick up some food to eat in the early morning, as we knew we would be getting up before the hotels served breakfast. We got to the park at 1730. There was a sign that said the gate closed at 1800 and opened in the morning at 0730, so we didn’t have time to do much birding. We mostly wanted to familiarize ourselves with the roads, so the next morning when we were going to try for the PR Screech Owl we could find it in the dark.
We parked outside the gate at 1800 and birded there for a while, picking up our first endemic, the PR Tanager. We also saw Red-legged Thrush, Bananaquit, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Red-tailed Hawk, and Scaly-naped Pigeon. We then drove to a town called Fajardo, on the eastern end of the island and only about 30 minutes away from El Yunque. We managed to get a room at the Fajardo Inn guest house for $65/night. Rooms at the Fajardo Inn itself were probably nicer, but they were also more expensive at about $90/night. Supper was a quick sandwich at a McDonald’s.
Wednesday, Feb. 14
We left the hotel at 0430 in order to get up into the park and try to listen for the screech owl. When we got to the gate that was supposed to be closed, we found that they didn’t lock it at all, so we drove on into the park and started listening for the owl. We drove the road slowly, listening for the owl. Finally about 0600 we heard one at the head of the Bano de Oro trail at about km 12.0. We tried to spotlight it, but the vegetation was too dense and we couldn’t see it. I was afraid we wouldn’t get to see it because of the vegetation (this was mentioned in previous trip reports). We then walked up the trail a few yards so we could see behind the shrubs and found the PR Screech Owl perched on a limb only 4-5 feet above the ground. We got a great look at it for about 15 seconds before it flew off.
We then went to the La Mina Falls parking lot to wait for daylight. While we were waiting, we heard another screech owl that was close, but we didn’t ever see it. The high altitudes of the park are the rainiest places on the island, and that was true today. In the higher altitudes it was rainy, windy, and foggy. It seemed to come and go, so when it got that way, we simply drove to a lower elevation and birded there for a while. There weren’t a lot of birds this day, with ones and twos showing up. We added Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-whiskered Vireo, Mangrove Cuckoo, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, and finally, poor looks at 3 PR Todies.
It was getting about lunchtime so we decided to go to the grounds of the Fajardo Inn to try to find some hummingbirds. It worked. On the grounds of the hotel, there are several flowering trees and shrubs. We got great looks at Antillean Mango, Green-throated Carib (female only), and Antillean Crested Hummingbird. Also seen on the grounds or nearby were Northern Mockingbird, Black-faced Grassquits, Greater Antillean Grackle, White-winged Dove, Grey Kingbird, Common Ground Dove, Nutmeg Mannikin, Great Egret, and Caribbean Martin.
We decided to again try the higher reaches of the park to hope we could catch a glimpse of the PR Parrots. Other trip reports said they had seen them fly over near the Yokahu’ Tower in the late afternoon. They have also been reported seen near the captive breeding cages near the end of highway 191. We ran across a park employee and asked him about what might be our best chance to see the parrots. He said that after hurricane Hugo came through in 1989, the parrots rarely hung out on the eastern side of the mountains anymore. He said that they mostly were found on the west side of the forest. The only access for this area was highway 186. He then told us that this road was closed to the public. I had read in a trip report that the parrots had been seen from an overlook on the Espiritu Santo River, off highway 186. We decided to try, but the road was indeed closed, as they were doing some grading work.
We then went back up 191 to the top where there is a gate that is closed and locked. We parked the car near there and walked past the gate to a service road that eventually went to the captive breeding cages. Here we added PR Woodpecker. We walked past the cages (we actually heard some of the captives squawk) and on up the hill. While still in sight of the cages, we heard a parrot-like call. We got very excited and hoped luck was with us, but when the bird that made the call flew overhead, it turned out to be a macaw. It had a red head, but we couldn’t tell if it was a Red-and-Green or a Scarlet. Either way it was an escaped bird and not countable. We continued up the road to a trailhead of the Mt. Britton Trail. We hiked down the trail and eventually got great looks at the PR Tody and some more PR Tanagers. Near the bottom of the trail we had two female PR Emerald hummingbirds.
Some sources of information that I had read before our trip said that up to 11 of the PR endemics are possible in this park, but the lousy weather surely had something to do with our only finding 5 of them. There simply weren’t many birds around. We were never bothered by anybody the whole time in the park and the park people were very friendly. We were hoping to find a place on highway 186 that we could see out. Having a scope, we were hoping to use binoculars to pick up the parrots flying and try to get a good look with the scope. That never happened, as with the road being closed, we never found a place where the vegetation opened up enough to allow a view of the hillside. Another option would have been to hike to one of two lookout towers and wait and see if the parrots flew by. Since we were in the same area, we decided to go back to the Fajardo Inn guest house for the night. We ate at the hotel restaurant. The food was pricey and just average.
Thursday, Feb. 15
When we got up and looked at the top of the mountain, it was obvious that it was foggy and rainy again, so we went to the south side of the forest and drove up highway 191 from that side. I guess that highway 191 used to go all the way through the park, but it does not anymore. We found the road easily and drove to the end, where we parked the car and started hiking. It rained slightly, but the trail was the old roadbed and therefore paved and not muddy. This was a very pleasant place. We did not encounter any other people here, as opposed to the other part of 191, which was very popular and had lots of people in tour groups or on their own. We probably walked about 2 miles out and 2 miles back. Birds added on the way up 191 were Zenaida Dove and Osprey. Along the trail we added great looks at the PR Tody, PR Tanager, PR Stripe-headed Tanager, Northern Waterthrush, Spotted Sandpiper, and Green Mango (the other endemic hummingbird).
Our plan now was to drive to the southwest part of the island and try to pick up the rest of the endemics. It took about 2.5- 3 hours to drive to an area called Guanica. Along the way we added Magnificent Frigatebird, Turkey Vulture, American Kestrel, Brown Pelican, and Little Blue Heron. At Guanica there is a state forest and biosphere reserve. We tried to stay at a place called Mary’s Lee by the Sea, just off highway 333, but they were booked up. We then drove about 15 minutes away to a small town called Parguera, on highway 304. There’s a parador (resort) there called Hotel Villa Parador de La Parguera that was supposed to have another endemic, the Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, that comes to roost in the mangrove islands right behind the hotel.
The paradors were supposed to be expensive (one near Mary’s, the Copamarina, charged $180 and up per night), so we looked around in Parguera and found a place (painted bright pink) called Villa Andujar Guest House (ph.- 899-3475 or 899-8346) that only charged $45/night. It certainly wasn’t a luxury hotel, but the room was clean, the bed was good, it was safe, and had air-conditioning and a good shower. It suited our needs perfectly. Be advised that the elderly lady that ran it didn’t speak much English. When we came out of the room to go birding for the rest of the afternoon, we found the Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds in a tree just outside our room, along with PR Strip-headed Tanagers. That evening we drove to the end of road 333, to a sand parking lot. There’s a trail to the left that goes up the hill into the dry forest. We walked about a mile up and then back during the late afternoon, adding Adelaide’s Warbler, Troupial, Prairie Warbler, and Caribbean Elaenia.
After we came back down to the parking lot, we walked about 200 yards to the east along a trail that parallels the ocean. Off to the left there is a lagoon where we added Black-necked Stilt, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstone, and Blue-winged Teal. The trail up the hill that we had walked earlier (at the end of the pavement) was supposed to be a good spot for the PR Nightjar, so we waited for dark. As we got out of our car, a gentleman came up and introduced himself as Hank Golet from Connecticut. He had heard we were there from the owner of a place we tried to get a room at earlier in the day and we asked him if he wanted to join us in looking for the nightjar.
We walked about 300 yards up the trail and I played a tape of the nightjar call. Almost immediately, one flew right over our heads and up the trail. I had a spotlight and managed to get it on the bird for what turned out to be our only look at the PR Nightjar for the trip. We only saw it for about 2-3 seconds, but saw that it had no white bars in the wing. We heard a few calling after that, but were never able to actually see another one.
Friday, Feb. 16
We got up early to try the park gate at the end of highway 334. This was also supposed to be a good place for the PR Screech Owl and the PR Nightjar. We found it with no problem, bearing left at the only fork we came to as we drove in. We parked the car and walked about a mile into the park on the road. It was a lovely morning, with lots of stars and about a ¼ moon. We could see the road easily as our eyes adjusted. We tried to tape for the owl and the nightjar, but had no luck until about 0600, when both birds started calling. We were hoping to find the nightjar sitting in the road and get a good close look in the spotlight, but in spite of using the tape we never saw it. We didn’t try to tape out the owl at this point, having already had a good look in El Yunque. After it got light enough to see the birds, we birded the road within the first 300-400-yards of the entrance gate and had a great time. We had several of the birds already mentioned and added PR Bullfinch and PR flycatcher.
It got to be about 0930 and my wife wanted a cup of coffee, so we decided to leave. Just as we turned the car around, we saw a couple of birds move in the shrubs and heard some chips so we investigated to see what was making the noises. I made a loud spish noise and we soon had great looks at PR Vireo and PR Lizard-Cuckoo! Adelaide’s Warbler, PR Woodpecker, PR Stripe-headed Tanager, and PR Tody were also seen in this stretch of road. That made 10 endemics at this site alone, and we never got a good look at a hummer that was probably a PR Emerald!
Mr. Golet had told us that he had heard that there was a whale-watching boat in the town of Puerto Real that would take out birdwatchers for $25/person. We decided to check it out and possibly pick up some seabirds. On the way there, we tried to find a place called Laguna Cartegena, where we might have a slim chance to pick up Yellow-breasted Crake. We found a road into the Laguna at km 12.3 on highway 101. It was a dirt track and we went in about 1.2 km to a cyclone fence gate. Apparently this area is now under the care of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We walked in only about ½ mile and found some reed-filled water areas that yielded Green Heron, Common Moorhen, Purple Gallinule (eating a frog!), Common Snipe, Sora, Least Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, and 18 Ruddy Ducks.
While scanning the edge of the reeds, I caught a ½ second glimpse of a rail, but was unable to determine what species it was. We left and got to Puerto Real about 1300. We found a boat owned by a couple of Americans, Bill and Mary Carmel (787-851-4200 or cell.- 323-8682). Their boat was called the Driftwood. They told us that it would be $35/person, but they were booked up until Monday. We didn’t want to wait that long. While at the marina, we added Sandwich Terns.
We then drove to the Maricao Forest, about an hour away, and found the place we hoped to find the Elfin Woods Warbler. This was a picnic area at km 16.2 on highway 120. We found it easily and birded the picnic grounds and trails until about 1730. It was surprisingly devoid of birds. We only saw a few common species and no warblers at all. We then drove back to Parguera (about 1 hour) and spent another night at Villa Andujar. Mr. Golet told us he had seen the Elfin Woods Warbler near an electrical substation in the picnic grounds the day before, but it was between 0700 and 0900, so we made plans to get up early and be there at daybreak.
Saturday, Feb. 17
We arrived at the picnic grounds right on time at daybreak. Indeed the birds were more active and singing. The road into the picnic area goes straight through the picnic grounds and ends at the substation. We parked the car there and walked past the substation up the hill until we came to a track leading downhill to the right. We went down this track (only about 100 yards or so) until it joined with an old road (there are several old barrels here on the left). Mr. Golet said he had seen the warbler here. We were only there for about 15 minutes when we saw the warbler. It was foraging with some other small birds, one of which was a Black-and-White Warbler, giving a nice comparison view. The Elfin Woods Warbler had an aluminum leg band on the left leg. Other birds added here were Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart, and Northern Parula.
From here it was only a short drive (probably about 15 miles) to a
called Hacienda Juanita.
There was supposed to be a trail below the swimming pool that was reported to be very birdy. We found the trail easily and birded it for a couple of hours. We found the bird we wanted, the Lesser Antillean Pewee, along with several PR endemics (Woodpecker, Stripe-headed Tanager, Tanager, Tody, and Bullfinch). We also added an immature Black-cowled Oriole. The only bird we had not gotten to this point that we wanted to see was the Loggerhead Kingbird. It has been reported from Hacienda Juanita, but we didn’t see it there. We did find one, however, sitting on some overhead powerlines on highway 105 on our way to the city of Mayaguez.
Basically we found all the birds we wanted to in about 3 full days of birding. Having said that, we were pretty much searching only for the endemics and near-endemics, and not really spending time looking for some of the introduced parrots, parakeets, and finches. Our ground costs only ran about $650. Of that, $230 was for the rental car and $220 was for lodging. There were plenty of places to stay in the town of Parguera, but we didn’t see that many places on the east coast. There were lots of fast food places around, but we ate at several small local shops and the food was good. We never felt threatened or endangered at any time.
We found Puerto Rico to be very litter free and clean, with some
gorgeous waters around the coast. The people we met there were always
and helpful. One goof we made was to forget to fill up the rental car
gas before we got back to the airport. They charged us $38 for a “fuel
charge”. As for the rarest bird, the PR Parrot, you might have a better
chance to see one if you contact the people in charge of the captive
program or someone with the USF&WS. I was told that they might lead
you into a platform to try to see one, but you have to contact them
weeks in advance. We set up our trip at the last minute and didn’t have
the time to do this. You also might try to contact a guy named Leopoldo
Miranda (email@example.com). He is the main force behind the Puerto Rican
Ornithologic society (they have a website) and works for the forest
E = endemic or nearly endemic. The numbers after the species
are the days the species was seen.
|Pied-billed Grebe- 16||Brown Pelican- 15-17|
|Magnificent Frigatebird- 13-17||Great Blue Heron- 16, 17|
|Great Egret- 13-17||Tricolored Heron- 16|
|Little Blue Heron- 15, 16||Snowy Egret- 16|
|Cattle Egret- 13-17||Green Heron- 16|
|Least Bittern- 16||Blue-winged Teal- 15|
|Ruddy Duck- 16||Turkey Vulture- 15-17|
|Osprey- 13, 16||Broad-winged Hawk- 16|
|Red-tailed Hawk- 13-16||American Kestrel- 15-17|
|Sora- 16||Purple Gallinule- 16|
|Common Moorhen- 14, 16||American Oystercatcher- 15|
|Black-necked Stilt- 15, 16||Black-bellied Plover- 15|
|Semipalmated Plover- 15||Killder- 16|
|Common Snipe- 16||Greater Yellowlegs- 15|
|Lesser Yellowlegs- 15||Solitary Sandpiper- 16|
|Spotted Sandpiper- 15||Ruddy Turnstone- 15|
|Semipalmated Sandpiper- 15||Least Sandpiper- 15|
|Sandwich Tern- 16||Rock Dove- 13-15, 17|
|Scaly-naped Pigeon- 13-17||Zenaida Dove-15, 16|
|White-winged Dove- 14-17||Common Ground Dove- 14-17|
|Mangrove Cuckoo- 14-16||Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (E)- 16, 17|
|Smooth-billed Ani- 15||Puerto Rican Screech Owl (E)- 14-16|
|Puerto Rican Nightjar (E)- 15||Antillean Mango- 14|
|Green Mango (E)- 15, 17||Green-throated Carib- 14|
|Antillean Crested Hummingbird- 14||Puerto Rican Emerald (E)- 14-16|
|Puerto Rican Tody (E)- 14-17||Puerto Rican Woodpecker (E)- 14, 16, 17|
|Caribbean Elaenia- 15||Lesser Antillean Pewee- 17|
|Puerto Rican Flycatcher (E)- 16, 17||Gray Kingbird- 13-17|
|Loggerhead Kingbird- 17||Caribbean Martin- 14|
|Cave Swallow- 15,16||Northern Mockingbird- 14-16|
|Pearly-eyed Thrasher- 14-17||Red-legged Thrush- 13-17|
|Nutmeg Mannikin- 14, 16||Puerto Rican Vireo (E)- 16|
|Black-whiskered Vireo- 14, 15||Northern Parula- 14, 16|
|Yellow Warbler- 16||Chestnut-sided Warbler- 14|
|Magnolia Warbler- 17||Black-throated Blue Warbler- 13, 17|
|Yellow-rumped Warbler- 17||Black-throated Green Wabler- 17|
|Adelaide's Warbler (E)- 15, 16||Prairie Warbler- 15, 16|
|Elfin Woods Warbler (E)- 17||Black-and-White Warbler- 17|
|American Redstart- 17||Northern Waterthrush- 15|
|Bananaquit- 13-17||Puerto Rican Tanager (E)- 13-17|
|Puerto Rican Stripe-headed Tanager (E)- 15-17||Black-faced Grassquit- 14-17|
|Puerto Rican Bullfinch (E)- 16, 17||Yellow-shouldered Blackbird (E)- 15|
|Greater Antillean Grackle- 13-17||Troupial- 15, 16|
|Black-cowled Oriole- 17||House Sparrow- 14|
88 species total