23 - 28 April 1998
by Tom Love
Had a delightful and productive six days in Puerto Rico 23-28 April 1998. Thanks in large part to help from several people, especially Mark Oberle, and several informative trip reports posted to Birdchat, I was able, amazingly, to locate *every* lifer and/or endemic species sought. A species list follows the long narrative.
After a long red-eye, arrived in San Juan for the conference (Soc. for Applied Anthropology) at the Condado on Thursday morning. The warm humid air didn't knock me back as much as I'd expected, having left cool Oregon only hours earlier. Despite my Spanish fluency, the taxi driver still tried to convince me that the posted and agreed-to rates from airport to my dive hotel in Miramar were wrong. We settled on $15, and I walked into the Hotel Toro. Despite bulls all around, it turns out Toro is the owner's last name. It's an old hotel past its glory, but safe; the small rooms have A/C. And, the price was right - $45 double - and only a 10 min. walk across a causeway around to the west side of the Condado strip to the meeting site - the Condado Plaza Hotel and Casino. The Condado was an overpriced, touristy strip generally to be avoided. Old San Juan, on the other hand, though quite touristy was very interesting historically and just plain fun. Several good restaurants (easy, more interesting and cheaper to eat in local places - PR food was hearty, tasty and not spicey) and taverns where locals hang out (e.g., El Jibaro Restaurant on Calle Sol), and of course the many historical buildings. Ponce de Leon's sixteenth century mansion was especially attractive, with gardens.
Walks around the Condado area and Old San Juan off and on over the next four days yielded a number of species, including ubiquitous Greater Antillean Grackles, a few Royal Terns, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls by the causeways, Zenaida Doves, Common Ground-Doves, and at least two Northern Mockingbirds in the gardens, Gray Kingbirds widespread, but also some surprises (I thought) like Red-legged Thrush behind the Caribe Hilton and another across the street from the Condado Plaza, and Pearly-eyed Thrasher farther east in residential Condado. In the Miramar area were also Black-faced Grassquits. I kept expecting but never did see hummers (hoping for Green-throated Carib and/or Antillean Crested H.) in the numerous and seemingly inviting flowered gardens. Also, I'm always taken aback by the general birdless quality of tropical oceans. I'd spotted Brown Pelicans and Cattle Egrets near the airport on landing. Two Cave Swallows glided around the San Cristobal ruins. House Sparrows were at the Caribe Hilton entrance, and a small group of comical Java Sparrows were just east of the Plaza Colon. Bananaquits were *everywhere*.
My student Alex and colleague Eric (both interested non-birders) and I rented a car on Sunday for two days (actually they stayed another day, I had to get back darn it!) to drive out to the SW corner of the island. Mark Oberle had wisely urged me to skip El Yunque area - no chance for the parrot anyway. By 12:30 from the airport we headed across the flag-bedecked new toll bridge (gee, is the current regime pro-statehood or what?) SW through Rio Piedras to Hwy. 52 south. Exiting at 172 on south side of Caguas, we roared past a Che Guevara kiosk to our first stop - the Plain Pigeon spot described in several posts. I'd imagined it to be more suburban and larger than it was - a smaller, more village, treed setting, reached on a rather long windy Hwy. 172 north of Cidra. Trip reports made it sound like you had to be there near dusk or dawn, so arriving about 2:30-3:00 seemed risky - but it was my only chance. But we didn't even have to get out of the car, practically. As a typical afternoon rain started, we were able to watch at least 15 pigeons at fairly close range - they are indeed very colorful. A cooperative Black-cowled Oriole flew in to inspect.
Feeling charged up, we wound back to 52 through some pretty but very windy roads (thinking it was a waste to go all the way back the way we'd come, up 172 from Caguas - but that might be as good, really). The Monument to the Jibaro in the middle of nice forested mountains was a pleasant though birdless stop. On to the open, drier side of the island, we stopped at Walmart in Ponce for a few items - mostly a mask and snorkel Alex wanted for further travel after PR (he's going to be in Dominica and Guadaloupe - lifer city!@#$). We got to Sabana Grande and headed up Hwy. 120 toward Maricao and Hacienda Juanita.
Driving north we climbed higher on this westernmost end of the Cordillera Central, into cooler tropical montane forest (my favorite overall biome in the world) and left the populated lowlands below. Summit was about 2800 ft. elevation by my altimeter wristwatch (which I forgot to calibrate at sea level, so this is rough). I forget now whether the highest point was before or after the picnic area at km. 16.2. At any rate, I pulled in to the picnic area and stopped at the first open area (by a garbage can). Barely out of the car I noticed some activity overhead - a busy male and female Elfin Woods Warbler! Also a Lesser Antillean Pewee. Ca-ching! I couldn't believe it would be this easy - or perhaps luck was with me, for earlier posts had indicated the fast-moving EW Warbler could be missed. After a few more minutes a Pto. Rican Tanager skulked towhee-like through the underbrush by the fence (though next morning at Hda. they were up in the trees). Some more minutes produced little else, and it was getting late, so we headed up to Hacienda Juanita.
Previous posts had made it seem like this Parador would be difficult to find. Turning west at the junction on 105, we came to the Hacienda Juanita in a km. or two - well-marked, easy to find. This place was terrific: quiet, woodsy, good food, good accomodation, friendly staff and very birdy. I'd asked about dinner times back in San Juan, and so knew we'd have to be there by 6 or so; dinner is served until 7 on the nice veranda. (It could have been later than 7, actually, but the place clearly shuts down.) Over a great dinner and as the coqui treefrogs reached a chorus, my mind turned to the owl. After settling in we wandered down to the far end of the complex, where there's a big street light and dumpster area. We managed to find a coqui and observe it closely with a flashlight - very small and pale orangeish (there are about a dozen spp. of coqui BTW). Fireflies were flitting about, but no owls calling yet. We waited around another 15 mins. or so, and I thought well, it's been good so far, so I miss one...when all of a sudden a tremulous duet erupted. We shined flashlights and got reasonable looks twice at the owls. (This was the big cecropia tree - palmate leaves - on the highway side of this open space.) Fell into bed after a toast (I recommend Ron del Barrilito gold top, aged 6-10 yrs.) to the owls and the day.
Up at dawn next morning, we split up and I walked around the grounds, including the named path which loops down the hill and back up around. I broke for a delightful breakfast on the veranda, including good locally-grown coffee. (Available at Mr. Pico's (accent las syllable - Pi-CO) shop in Maricao village a few miles east of the Hacienda.) This morning was very productive: several of the very tame, confiding PR Todies on the trail, sev. Pto. Rican Tanagers, an Antillean Euphonia pair in the Hacienda patio, Amer. Kestrel pair behind the kitchen area, a few White-winged Doves, individual Scaly-naped Pigeons regularly flying over. No hummingbirds in evidence other than one brief glimpse of a Green Mango back down by the owl spot. Singing PR Bullfinches (it *is* very like Cardinal song) were a bit shy, but finally got good looks over by the tennis court. Both Gray (common) and Loggerhead Kingbirds (latter in the owl area), *many* Black-whiskered Vireos but *no* Pto. Rican Vireos that I could make out by song. Nice male Amer. Redstart and an even better look at Black-cowled Oriole on the trail. Bananaquits everywhere as usual. Several Red-legged Thrushes, a male Shiny Cowbird. Pto. Rican Woodpeckers very much in evidence flying around the whole area, calling; a lovely woodpecker. Both grassquits, the Yellow-faced near the start of the trail by the hwy., the Black-faced around the tennis court/pool. Several good looks at Stripe-headed Tanagers, male and female. By now it was mid-morning; hard to bid goodbye to the Hacienda, but much lay ahead.
We drove into Maricao village for some local color and supplies. Talking with shopowners and people on the street, this was a traditional, local and very enjoyable world light years away from San Juan. Caribbean Martins on the wires near the plaza were a treat.
We stopped back at Km. 16.2, but there wasn't much activity. I did manage to see a male Pto. Rican Emerald (my only one of the trip) buzz off, also another look at a Green Mango. A pleasant fellow with the Forestry office there was happy to let me look at his Raffaele book, as I'd only had some copies of certain pages with me. We stopped also at the stone observation tower farther south on 120, but apart from some Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks there was little new. We lost some time but felt it necessary to locate our camping spot for the evening = Susua State Forest east of Sabana Grande on a back road, though only about 15 mins. out of town once you knew the way. This is the closest area to Guanica to camp, and I'd already made arrangements back in San Juan. This area is very nice: lusher, taller riparian forest (where you camp) with drier forest on the hillsides. While waiting to talk to the biologist to confirm arrangements and to make sure, since there is a gate, that we could arrive late and leave early (to get to Guanica), two Pto. Rican Lizard Cuckoos tangled nearby.
Back through Sabana Grande en route to Parguera, we got somewhat turned around on the highways around Lajas, having intended to lunch in San German. Passed some Helmeted Guineafowl on the side of the road at one point. We finally found our way to Parguera, where my companions rented a small boat with motor for two hours and did some successful reef snorkeling. I hung around Parador Villa Parguera (much smaller than I'd expected from previous posts) and was immediately rewarded (this is early afternoon now) with several immaculate male Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds in amongst the Greater Antillean Grackles. No hummers in the Parador gardens, which seemed like they should be hummer mecca. Yellow Warbler in the mangroves. I did find a female Antillean Mango in the bougainvillea across the street. Two Ringed Turtle Doves were on a tel. post going in to the Villa.
I drove over the Guanica for some later afternoon birding. First to the Playa Jaboncillo path, which was pretty quiet until right back up at the top of the trail where I had excellent looks at Pto. Rican Flycatcher and Adelaide's Warbler! Pearly-eyed Thrashers were down below. (Never did see a Toupial.) Then I drove up on 334 into the Guanica SF, out to the guard station/parking area. The dry forest was lovely, but quiet. Driving slowly back out (soon followed by the guard - they start closing by 4:40 so everyone's out by 5 - I couldn't believe it), I managed a few short stops which yielded Caribbean Elaenia, among a couple of other species.
Ran back to Parguera to pick up Eric and Alex, then returned to Guanica where we wolfed down burgers at McDonald's (OK...quick), then out 333 to the end. This is a lovely, rather wild seaside drive. A number of surfers were out near the end. We found the Cueva Trail (from a trail map the guard had given me earlier) and hoped to find the bats reported in one of the posts; with Antillean Nighthawks calling overhead in the rapidly fading light, we walked quickly up into the forest and were not disappointed - hundreds of bats zooming around in the dry forest, though we didn't see them come out of a cave. Don't know which species they were; I wish bats weren't so hard to ID in the field. Back to the car and around to the gate on 334. The gate lies at the upper end of a working class urbanized area. Very loud music coming from several houses and barking dogs echoing off the hillsides made listening for noctural species difficult, to say the least. We walked up into the Guanica SF no more than 1/3 mile and heard two Pto. Rican Whip-poor-wills - one up ahead farther and one off to the north on a hillside. Satisfied, we got back in the car and drove to our camping area at Susua. A lovely starry night, very quiet except for all the coquis, also a Pto. Rican Screech Owl sounded off through much of the night. We were the only ones in the campground this night.
Next morning, I birded around Susua campground and found it so productive - particularly with two calling Pto. Rican Vireos (the only species still needed from my target list) in amongst the ubiquitous Black-wh. Vireos, that we wound up not going back down to Guanica! Susua was very birdy: Pto. Rican Bullfinch, Adelaide's Warbler, Mangrove Cuckoo, sev. Lizard Cuckoos sounding off but never saw one, Red-l. Thrush, P-e. Thrasher, PR Tody, Lesser Antillean Pewee on a nest (by the outhouses), Zenaida and White-w. Doves, Strip-h. Tanagers, Northern Bobwhite calls, and a male Antillean Mango. Highlight was a sudden whirr, a dove which flew in and gave me a brief look - a Key West Quail-Dove!! Very white breast, largish, warm reddish brown wings and upperparts, but it was gone so quickly that I didn't get to see any of the violet tones on neck nor the white line on the face. Definitely not a Ruddy Quail-Dove (which I never did see).
As my flight left at 2:00, we had to get going. The drive from Sabana Grande to the SJ airport would have been about 2 hrs. (traffic seems to be a problem only really during rush hours, and only in SJ area). So we had several hours leeway. Eric suggested we make a run to Fajardo, as I'd mentioned the two hummers there. So we blasted back east on on 52, making another stop at the Walmart in Ponce (Alex's mask strap was defective) (I don't shop at Walmart generally, so this was an especially interesting slice of Puerto Rican life to see). We did hit slow traffic trying to head east of SJ, so much so that it quickly became clear we weren't going to make it to Fajardo. So, my quickly raised hopes dashed, we turned north on 187 at Rio Grande (still scanning flowers hoping for the hummers) and worked back along the coast toward the airport - a nice conclusion to a great trip. White-cr. Pigeon east of Loiza and Sandwich Terns at a beach west of Loiza were new to the trip list. (When I finally got to the counter, turned out I'd been shifted to a flight leaving about two hours later! Might have been able to squeeze in Fajardo after all!)
59 species identified (23 life species*):
Ringed Turtle Dove
Key West Quail Dove*
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo*
Puerto Rican Screech Owl*
Puerto Rican Whip-poor-will*
Puerto Rican Emerald*
Puerto Rican Tody*
Puerto Rican Woodpecker*
Puerto Rican Flycatcher*
Lesser Antillean Pewee*
Pearly-eyed Thrasher* (life genus)
Puerto Rican Vireo*
Elfin Woods Warbler*
Greater Antillean Grackle
Puerto Rican Tanager* (life genus)
Puerto Rican Bullfinch*
Thanks again to previous posters and esp. Mark Oberle for terrific tips. Puerto Rico offered much more than I'd expected. I look forward to going back to Hacienda Juanita someday with my wife, when our boys are a bit older and can enjoy it.
McMinnville, OR 97128