1 -3 February 1997
by Ron Outen
Background: This is a birding report of a first trip to Puerto Rico by an occasional birder. After reading some of the trip reports by experienced PR birders, I can say at the outset that this is a comparatively lame attempt. My list is not as long as it would have been if I were confident of identifying the birds by either sight or song. I took it slowly and carefully and tried to be sure before recording the bird. For example, I saw dozens of hummingbirds I have never seen before but only one sat still long enough for me to get a decent look. A more experienced birder would have recorded several species; I recorded one. Still, there may be an item or two of interest to others (e.g., a good spot for PR Screech Owl), and I include a bird list assembled by others for Hacienda Juanita at Maricao. All in all, I got 25 life birds, including several of the PR endemics, and I had a great time. So here goes.
This trip really got started a year ago in Waterloo, Iowa, when I gave up my seat on an overbooked flight and got a free ticket coupon in return. It was about to expire, and a close look at the fine print revealed it would get me to San Juan. I quickly realized I knew almost nothing about the geography of Puerto Rico, except for a quick overnight trip to the El Yunque rainforest nearly 20 years ago. .A general RFI to BIRDCHAT for advice on PR birding locations produced responses from several persons who forwarded trip reports from past years. The most extensive reports came from MARK OBERLE, who sent his own reports as well as those of GAIL MACKIERNAN. Both are obviously excellent birders, and I was able to locate all their sites on a map before I left. Mark is about to do a book and CD ROM on Puerto Rican birds.
A later query about hooking up with someone in PR who might like to join me for a day produced one of those amazing connections that seem to have been fated by the Internet gods. My query was forwarded to two people who were going to be there at the same time --- STEPHANIE TORBERT AND BILL MORRIS. After a couple of phone calls, we ended up at the same place in Guanica on the Southwest Coast ---- Mary Lee's-by-the-Sea. We spent two intense days birding together and became friends. Stephanie is a professional photographer and wildflower garden guide and naturalist. Bill is an anesthesia nurse. Both have traveled extensively and are excellent people. Thank you, BIRDCHAT!
I arrived in San Juan close to midnight on Friday night, January 31. The only useful option at that point, I had decided, was to stay at the Intercontinental Hotel, which is literally connected to the airport. I would not recommend this to anyone who has much of an option, but driving around at night looking for another place is even a worse idea. The room was very spartan, but clean. My plan to pick up my rental car early on Saturday morning quickly ran into a reality I had sort of forgotten about: the tropical sense of time. Nobody showed up where they should, when they should, so it was nearly 9:30 before I got started. I headed east on Route 3.
My plan was to go first to El Yunque and Fajardo, then head down to Guanica to meet Stephanie and Bill on Saturday night. Saturday morning I awoke to an intermittent downpours. I thought about abandoning this plan in favor of a quick trip directly to the south coast in search of drier weather, but I gave that up when a local informed me that the rain was everywhere on the island. Saturday looked like a birding write-off anyway, so I stuck to my plan, figuring that maybe I could get some waterfowl around Fajardo and Humacao. This turned out the be a mistake. Once I finally got south of the mountains late Saturday afternoon, I discovered it had been sunny there all day. Meanwhile, I had been banging around in a downpour just an hours drive from good weather.
El Yunque was a disappointment. The road up the mountain (Route 191) is still washed out from last year's hurricanes, and you cannot get past Coco Falls, which is not very far at all. This would be sort of OK on a good day, but this was not a good day. I gave it up without a single bird and headed for Fajardo, soaking wet.
One other thing: I learned from MARK OBERLE just before I left that there was no hope for a PR Parrot because none were hanging around any areas available to the public. It probably would not have been possible anyway, due to the lack of access to most of El Yunque.
CATTLE EGRETs and TURKEY VULTUREs are everywhere, of course. Driving around Fajardo and birding between rain showers, I picked up GREATER ANTILLEAN GRACKLE, BLACK-FACED GRASSQUIT, BANANAQUIT, MOCKINGBIRD, GRAY KINGBIRD, WHITE-WINGED DOVE, SCALY-NAPED PIGEON, KESTREL, AND SNOWY EGRET in fairly short order. The map showed a refuge of some sort due north of Fajardo near the coast, but I never was able to find it.
One of the trip reports had described a waterfowl refuge along the coast a short distance NE of Playa de Humacao on the east coast. Figuring the ducks would be out in any weather, I headed there to beat the 3:00 closing time noted in one of the trip reports. The refuge entrance is easy to miss if you are not alert. It is located just before (i.e. north of) the place where the road follows the margin of a significant marsh. I got there at 2:00, but the place was closed anyway. I ended up parking alongside the road and scoping the open water in the marsh from alongside the road. This was dicey business. Heavy traffic and not a few comments out of car windows. My Spanish is non-existent. I assume they were compliments or tips on good birding spots. At least no one zooming by handed me a brick. Not much visible in the marsh. I risked my neck for BLUE-WINGED TEAL, WHITE CHEEKED PINTAIL, RUDDY DUCK, AMERICAN COOT, AND OSPREY. Heading back to the entrance gate and sneaking in briefly, I got a BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON, ZENAIDA DOVE, and the caretaker's CHICKEN before wimping out on the trespassing and leaving for greener (actually browner but at least drier) pastures.
I drove straight to Guanica to arrive by about 4:30 at my home for the next two days. Mary Lee's-by-the-Sea (787-821-3600) is essentially a B&B without the breakfast, located about 3 miles east of Guanica just off of Route 333, the shore road. There is a peninsula with a single residential street that follows the coastline. Turns right off 333 immediately after passing the Hotel Copamarina. Mary Lee's is nearly at the end of the street. Look for her sign. Her entrance gate leads to a lovely courtyard with wind chimes, fountains, and nice plants and driftwood. The house (in which Mary Lee also lives) has two multi-room apartments with kitchens, a single room, and a patio under the mangroves by the sea. A boat dock, canoes, hammock and nearby mangrove islands with fringing coral reef completes the scene. I learned later that Mary Lee owns and rents several houses along the street. The main house was better than the one other house that I checked out (where Stephanie and Bill stayed), but I don't know what Mary Lee's other places are like. I recommend Mary Lee's as a base for exploring the Guanica Dry Forest, Cabo Rojo, and the Southwest Coast.. It's very laid back and the price is reasonable. Not much choice in local restaurants, however, and the Guanica mercado closes early.
I left a note for Stephanie and Bill, who were due to arrive at any time, and headed out to try my luck along the edges of the GUANICA DRY FOREST. Route 333 follows the southern boundary of the forest eastward from Guanica for several miles before ending at a lovely beach. As sundown was approaching, I pulled off at a handy spot (opposite the entrance to a refuge area on the coast side), and headed up the dirt track into the forest. Within a few minutes, I had a TROUPIAL, but that was about it. There was a fair amount of stuff in there, but it was too thick to see very far.
The next morning, Stephanie, Bill and I went at dawn to the main entrance to the Forest, which is Route 334 just north of Guanica. We parked at the gate and walked in, working our way perhaps 1/4 mile along the road and up the hill. The results were a bit disappointing. Again, we could see movement and hear songs, but the vegetation was too thick for novices like us to get a good look at the birds. We saw or heard considerably more than we were able to identify. The experienced folks who had written the trip reports I had read identified various birds along this road by song, but we had no way to do that, so we just stumbled along in some frustration. After the gate opened, we went to the visitors center at the top of the road and tried one of the high trails. The full score for the morning was PR FLYCATCHER, MANGROVE CUCKOO, AND PEARLY-EYED THRASHER. Not a very good start. We were a bit discouraged, so we decided to work our way out to Cabo Rojo for a change of scenery.
Heading west from Ensenada on 324 about 3 or 4 miles, we stopped at a copse of trees surrounded by open fields. There is a windmill and cement stock tanks on the left. This turned out to be one of the nicest spot of the day. It produced RUDDY QUAIL DOVE, WARBLING SILVERBILL, YELLOW WARBLER, and GROUND DOVE. Elsewhere along the road, we saw RED TAILED HAWK, SMOOTH BILLED ANI, GREAT BLUE HERON, AND BELTED KINGFISHER.
We figured mid-day was not great, but we went anyway. The trip reports talked about yellow-shouldered blackbirds reliably to be found on the grounds. Not so. We hung around a good while, but no luck on the blackbirds. Maybe they come back in the evenings. (This is not a shabby place to hang out for awhile, though, and take a snooze under the palm trees.) We did pick up MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDs here, though, which was a life bird for Stephanie and therefore a good stop for all of us.
We continuted on west to Cabo Rojo.
This place is spectacular, but not great for birds in the heat of the day. We got an ANTILLEAN MANGO and 4 lonely LONG BILLED DOWITCHERS near the salt flats, but that was about it, except for the occasional BROWN PELICAN. If I go back there, I will carry a swim suit because there is an incredibly beautiful tropical bay with about 1/2 mile crescent of white sand beach. Actually, close observation revealed that the swim suit would appear to be optional attire, at best. Tired. We headed back to Mary Lee's to freshen up and try the Guanica Dry Forest again late in the day. This is place is written up so heartily, it's got to be good.
More Guanica Dry Forest
We were pretty late, but we went to the end of the road and took the La Cueva trail up into the mouth of a ravine. Birding was again lousy for us novices, but we got something that made up for it. La Cueva, it seems, means cave, and this particular cave is apparently near the mouth of the ravine to the left of the trail as you head in. We were standing there just at dusk when there were suddenly thousands of bats blazing through the cacti. We were apparently just opposite the mouth of the cave and straight in their exit path. An astounding sight. Kamikaze bats blasting through the thick underbrush straight at us. Bats veering left and right to cross close by our heads and into the brush on the other side of the path. Swarms of bats, all headed east into the brush. After a minute or two, it was over, the bats dispersed all over the place. But what a rush while it lasted! This is an experience I will go out of my way to repeat if I ever get back to Guanica. Not recommended for the faint-hearted where bats are concerned, because they do swarm out of there all around your head. It's amazing to see them zipping through the thick undergrowth at breakneck speed, straight for your head, then diverting past on either side. Trust your instruments, guys.
Thus ended Sunday, February 2.
The morning of the third day. We got up early (well, relatively early) and headed up Route 121 from Sabana Grande to Maricao in the tropical forest. A road side stop along the ridge before the observation tower produced a PR BULLFINCH, LESSER ANTILLEAN PEWEE, AND RED-LEGGED THRUSH.
The real treasure, however, was Parador La Hacienda Juanita, which is just west of Maricao on Route 105. This place got high marks in earlier trip reports, and I can see why. It's beautiful, for starters. It's also easy birding, which helped restore our confidence. We did quite well standing around the parking lot or having lunch on the restaurant balcony, scoring thereby ANTILLEAN EUPHONIA (my favorite of the trip), STRIPE HEADED TANAGER, PR TANAGER, PR WOODPECKER, AND LOGGERHEAD KINGBIRD. A hike on the nature trail replicated these birds and added the PR TODY, which I think looks like a puff ball with a toothpick stuck in the top of it. What a ridiculous bird.
We may have heard an Elfin Woods Warbler, but did not count it. The bird was hidden in a tangle of vines in a tree near the western terminus of the nature trail (i.e., near the Hacienda Juanita dumpster). The song sounded like the description in the book, but I have never heard a tape so I can't be sure. I really wanted to see that bird, but it never came out of its hiding place in the vines.
Now here is the tip on the PR Screech Owl, which we never did see because we had to get back down the hill to deal with Mary Lee's bill. According to the couple who appear to be the resident managers, there is a PR Screech Owl that lives near their house (at the western end of the complex). They say it comes out every night at dusk and flies all around the area near the dumpster. They say it is easy to see and almost never disappoints.
I really like Hacienda Juanita. The rooms are pretty plain, sort of motel-like (Mary Lee's rooms are much nicer). The setting, however, is beautiful, and the restaurant is very good. A perfect plan would be to spend a few days at Mary Lee's (including some time for snorkeling and swimming, because birding isn't everything) and a couple of days at Hacienda Juanita mostly for the birds. (See list below.)
Leaving Hacienda Juanita, we looped around to the west, down through the coffee plantations and returning to Maricao on Route 357, the next road to the north. We were hoping for a Plain Pigeon because they have been seen here before, but we did not see one. It was late, so we did not try all that hard.
At the edge of town, Stephanie and Bill got their TROUPIAL at last, in palm trees.
That night, the last for me, we met some of Mary Lee's other guests...from the Seattle area. Very nice folks. We pooled our dinner resources and talked long into the night. When I left, Stephanie and Bill had been pulled into their plans for the rest of the week, which included snorkeling and trips to festivals and back alley music bars in Ponce. I really wanted to stay, but could not.
I got up early on Tuesday, February 4 and drove to San Juan Airport. For the record, I made it easily in 2 1/2 hours from Guanica. With a few minutes to spare, I swung around north of the airport near the public beaches and yacht basin, where I added a RING-BILLED GULL and ROYAL TERN, the last birds of the trip.
Here are a few general impressions and advice for first-time birders.
First, pick up a decent road map in San Juan. The map I got from a travel store in my town did not have all the little roads, and many of the ones it showed were not marked as to route number. A map obtained locally, however, had everything and made life easier.
Second, drive very defensively. It is common to see people turn left from the right lane, against a stop light, across three lanes of traffic, in order to make an illegal U-Turn. Also, watch your rear view mirror when on a fast road. People will come from behind at 30 miles over the speed limit and go between you and the car in the lane beside you. Once I had these things figured out, it didn't bother me much. Also, I noticed that many of the locals blow their horn at every turn on mountain roads. I learned why when we met the cement truck headed down hill. Fortunately, we had just pulled off the road to look at a bird, so it was only a near miss.
Third, you can cover the whole island pretty readily. It's not a big place. From the coast at Guanica up to Maricao is maybe 45 minutes. This means lots of varied habitiats are pretty available. I did not have time to get to other interesting areas, such as the karst region.
Fourth, there is almost nobody from up here down there. The tour book warned me to reserve months in advance, especially in February. For San Juan, maybe. We had no trouble finding space with Mary Lee with just a couple weeks notice, and we were able to extend out stay there with only a few hours notice. There was only one other North American hanging around Hacienda Juanita that day, and we saw very few tourists anywhere. The south west coast of Puerto Rico seems to be sort of an undiscovered tropical paradise. This is great if your idea of a vacation is something other than window shopping boutiques and eating in fine restaurants. Otherwise, Charlotte Amalie or San Juan is better. I definitely will go back.
Fifth...very important...do not bother with the Peterson Guide to Birds of the West Indies. It is just not a good book, the first Peterson guide I have ever trashed. It has lousy pictures and some PR birds just aren't in it. Stephanie and Bill had one of these, and it was a big disappointment. What you really have to have is the Raffaele guide to the birds of Puerto Rico. I found it at a local bookstore, but I also found it available by mail order from www.amazon.com. The paperback version seems to take weeks to arrive from the amazon people, though.
Sixth...a tape would be very helpful, both for learning the songs and (if you are so inclined) for pulling the birds out of the Guanica Dry Forest thickets. (I really don't like that place very much, even though it supposedly has half the bird species on the island and is a United Nations International Biome or some such thing. It is a pain in the butt to bird if you are a novice like me.)
Hope these notes are helpful to somebody.
Hacienda Juanita Bird List
The nice people there will give you the following list of birds sighted on the grounds, as compiled by Kevin Karlson and Dale Rosselet, guests-birdwatchers for 2 days in March 1993. The note says the original list was revised in March, 1994, and revised again by Jorge L. Coll in January, 1997.
Red Tailed Hawk
PR Screech Owl
PR Lizard Cuckoo
Common Ground Dove
Lesser Antillean Pewee
Cape May Warbler
Black Cowled Oriole
Black-Throated Blue Warbler
Elfin Woods Warbler
Black & White Warbler
White Winged Dove