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21 - 24 April 1999

by Mike Houle

A Trip Through Paradise

I just returned from a trip through paradise.  I have never enjoyed a birding experience as much as I enjoyed this trip.  I arrived Wednesday, 21 April 1999 at 3pm, and left Sat at 3pm.  I was fortunate to see 75 species, 30 lifers, 24 on nests and 13 endemics.  These numbers are low, but I was able to observe each of these new birds over and over, up close and personal.

I made arrangements with Leopoldo Miranda who is doing research in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, near his home just west of Ciales, off 146.  The area is sedimentary with sinkholes everywhere, which makes the numerous mountains in the region look like haystacks.  The rain forests are lush, and we observed the splendid Shade Tree Coffee Plantations versus the sterile coffee plantations versus the unspoiled jungle.

We stayed in a country house, totally away from civilization, off 608, with a breath taking view of a waterfall in an unspoilt valley.  The sounds of the waterfall were just as magical as the view itself.  We stopped at Leo's home which is near the end of a road in a remote, primeval rainforest where I saw new birds daily.  The country house is several miles from Leo's home where a Jeep Cherokee was needed just to get to the country house.

From the airport we stopped at the shrimp ponds on 165 near Toa Baha and saw Great Egret, Brown Pelican, Little Blue Heron, Royal Tern, Laughing Gull, Magnificent Frigatebird, Antillean Grackle, Scaly Naped Pigeon, White-winged Dove and Ringed Turtle Dove.  We were to see many of these birds every day.

We experienced the drive into the country house, and went out into the jungle where we saw a Bananaquit sleeping in her pocket nest.  We then had a Puerto Rican Screech Owl, flutter out of the jungle, and land, several times, 5 to 10 feet away.  This was my first of many Endemic species seen on this trip.  This diminutive delight spread out his wings in a defiant manner to his unseen intruder.  The Screech Owls were disturbed and they gave us a most fierce scolding long into the night.  The moon shown brightly through the canopy, the fire flies sparkled in the blackness of the jungle thickets and the 15 or so species of frogs (called Go Ke) kept up a wonderful, innocent peeping which was truly musical, if not mesmerizing.  The big dipper was vivid as seen from this dark jungle hillside.  We retired at 10:30 to these tranquil sounds in the open air country house.

On Thursday, without a mechanical alarm, we were awakened by the crowing of a Jungle Fowl at 5:15am and he was right under my window by 5:45, making sleep impossible.  We fixed a healthy granola and then strolled out into the morning, greeted by Shiny Cowbirds, Black-faced and Yellow-faced Grassquit, Black-whiskered Vireo, Puerto Rican Stripe-headed Tanager, my second endemic, a Gray Kingbird on a nest in a breadfruit tree and my third endemic, the diminutive Puerto Rican Tody.  We saw where this precious little guy was nesting in a clay bank, in a manner similar to our bank swallow or kingfisher.

The Jeep Cherokee handled the climb out of the country house road and we were soon into a Shade Tree Coffee Plantation.  What a surprise, as I have been in giant coffee tree plantations in Brazil.  You could not tell you were in a coffee plantation.  In the unmolested rainforest, there is a canopy and the ground cover, and it is thick.  In the Shade Tree Coffee Plantation, the coffee trees are scattered throughout the forest, actually adding mid-level habitat, providing more diverse habitat, making it more bird rich than the natural jungle.  I was impressed with the Shade Tree concept, especially when we later saw a bulldozer clearing the way for the pure, sterile, coffee tree plantations in the mountains.  Some Shade Tree plantations are not organic, but they use very little fertilizer, as compared to the mono-culture coffee plantations.

In the Shade Tree Plantations, at the end of 608, at 2500', we saw wonderful views of the endemic Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Black Cowled Oriole, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Green Mango & Puerto Rican Emerald (Both endemic Hummingbirds), a pair of Puerto Rican Tanager (an endemic species and genus) found only in higher elevations.  These wonderful Puerto Rican Tanager worked past us, slowly, feeding, as close as 5'.  We walked both an old dirt road and a jungle trail on the side of the hill.

There was one tree, high in the canopy, but now at our eye level as we were on the side of a steep hill, which was draped in a mistletoe plant.  The mistletoe was the source of a fight between the Puerto Rican Emerald and the Puerto Rican Green Mango.  At the same time, and in this same tree was a dazzling pair of Antillean Euphonia.  It was almost too much to contemplate in a single experience.  Mark Oberle* commented that Hurricane George decimated this dainty little ball of feathers and energy, and he was pleased to hear we found a surviving pair.  Hurricane George did knock down some of the cover canopy, but in nature's way, the forest has regenerated a new crop of the tall trees, which, in time, will establish a new canopy.

We observed a male Strip-headed Tanager feeding a female with a red band on her leg and an endemic Puerto Rican Woodpecker put on quite a show.  We were able to observe all of these birds, quietly, up close, without rushing, in a very calm manner.

We followed the treacherous dirt road through the Shade Tree Coffee Plantation, down hill on hard red clay, and was glad it was not wet from the rain.  We went to Hy 533 and observed one of many spectacular waterfalls under the steep canopy of the lush jungle.  The roads all look like single lane roads, but through virtual reality, these cars and trucks, without slowing, seem to melt together and keep on going without a crash.  We stopped on one stretch of this road, and apparently, the wave of Leo's hand was all that was needed for the following car to just slide around us, as we had stopped to observe a Northern Parula in brilliant color.  We wound our way back to Ciales where we had lunch at a health food restaurant owned by Leo's wife, a very good experience.

We worked our way over to a sinkhole, between the Gambalache Reserve and the newly created Cano Tiburones wetlands.  At this one acre sinkhole were found Green Heron, Great Egret, Common Moorhen, Purple Gallinule, Masked Duck, Smooth-billed Ani, Osprey, Kestrel and a turtle.  In the Tiburones wetlands we met Sergio Colon and we took off across these wetlands where no man should have dared.  We were treated to Cattle Egret, Little Blue Heron (white phase, blue phase and calico), Brown Pelican (breeding plumage), Pied-billed Grebe, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, one fly-by Frivolous-whistling Duck, Northern Mockingbird, an Antillean Grackle on a nest and finally to a rookery for Great Egret, Tricolored Heron and Snowy Egret, where the owner did not allow any visitors, except for Leo and Sergio.

We picked up a herpetologist, Alberto Puente, and at his home we saw a Red-legged Thrush.  We headed back into the area north of the Rio Abajo mountains, off 623 near La Esparanza.  At the end of the road is a sturdy gate which Alberto opened and we began descending into a giant sinkhole, ever downward, twisting, turning, grasses much higher than the Jeep and trees holding hands across every inch of this steep trail.  We finally leveled out at the bottom of this remote sinkhole, stopped and ate some wild Mango, and proceeded across a bedspread of woven vines in the flat bottom.  We went to the entrance to a bat cave, home to five species of bats.

The cave opening was about 10' x 20' and lay almost flat.  At dusk, endemic Puerto Rican Boa Constrictors began to slither down the vines and hang into the opening of this bat cave, where they will catch the bats, throw a few coils around the bat, and they are ready for lunch in 6 to 25 minutes depending upon the size of the bat.  Alberto has seen Boa seven feet in this area, and they get up to 9 feet in captivity.  They are endangered.  When the first phase of bats exploded out of the cave, they went between my legs, hit my arms and bumped into my hat.  They are good fliers, but were bent on escaping the grasp of the Boa, and seemed to fly helter skelter.  We searched the forest for more snakes, found another endemic, the giant Ano Lizard fast asleep on the end of a tree branch.  We listened to the Bullfinch with their quiet evening chatter and the fireflies put on a dazzling show for us.  We were able to see the Southern Cross from the bottom of this dark sinkhole.

The next challenge was to get up this mountain, in the dark, where all one can see are grasses and branches and leaves in the headlights.  The Jeep Cherokee, and the skill of the driver were up to this monumental challenge, but the evening was not over.  As we neared Alberto's home, Leo slammed on the brakes, Alberto jumped out of the jeep and grabbed a Boa by the tail, pulled for all he was worth, and finally got the Boa out of the jungle on side of the road.  The Boa wrapped around Alberto's arm and he jumped back into the Jeep, with the Boa.  Alberto said the 5-1/2 foot Boa squeezed his arm so tightly, that it became quite painful.  We took the Boa to Alberto's home, where he properly caged the snake for the evening.  The Boa is an endangered species and she was pregnant.  Alberto will radio tag her and release her in a remote, wilderness area, far from harms way.  We got back to the country house at 10:30, with the Screech Owls talking, and a few of the Go-Ke frogs in good voice.

On Friday, the Jungle Fowl had us up early.  At Leo's home, we started with another striking lifer, the Mangrove Cuckoo.  As we headed out his tiny road, Leo heard a Black-Cowled Oriole, another lifer for me.  We stopped and observed both a male and a female of the species.  We were not surprised to see two juvenile Black-Cowled Oriole being fed by the female, but we were surprised to see the male Oriole feed a pair of juvenile Stripe-headed Tanager, one female and one male.  The pair of Tanager followed and begged the Oriole for food, and in four minutes, the Oriole fed the Tanager four times.  There were no Tanager adults heard or seen.  We saw a moth and a creeping worm among the food items of this strange scene, and then the Mangrove Cuckoo returned with a bright green grasshopper.  After leaving this small road we ran into Jose Colon, one of Puerto Rico's top birders.

This day we traveled to Arecibo and west to a lookout, high on a cliff near the Guajataca Parador just off Hy 22 where we saw hundreds of Cave Swallow and those strikingly marked Tropic Birds with that magnificent tail.  They were joined by a dozen, dazzling Caribbean Martin.  Just beyond this high point, was a park at the mouth of the river, where we saw more Red-legged Thrush, a Puerto Rican Woodpecker making a new nest in a dead palm tree, below four other old nest holes.  We also saw a rookery of Cattle Egret and Great Egret, secure in the mangroves over the swampy side of the river.

We traveled to a large wetland reserve near Las Arenas, and some lagoons on Boqueron Bay.  These mangroves were full of Yellow Warblers, Green Heron and at least 350 Great Egret, one with a gray bill (believe me).  There were Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron in all phases, Snowy Egret, and three of the rarely seen Reddish Heron doing their fishing dance in among these other egrets.  We saw Spotted Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt and what Raffaele calls the Cayenne Tern which some classify with the Sandwich Tern.  We found two Wilson Plover on nests, with two and three eggs, and an Antillean Night Hawk on a nest, all in the dried tidal plane.  Leo was incredible in finding these.  We saw a pond with 23 Masked Duck, mostly hens, with some Killdeer and Yellowlegs in this area.

We had heard the elusive Adelaide Warbler, Puerto Rico's latest endemic, over most of the trip.  This day we went after him in this dry, southwestern portion of Puerto Rico, and after much stealth, we found and had great views of this little jewel.

Just east of the 301/303 intersection we turned south and drove this rough and fascinating road to a lagoon with a mangrove outer island.  On the way in leo spotted another endemic, the Puerto Rican Flycatcher, up close and personal.  It looks very much like the numerous Gray and Loggerhead Kingbird.  Now, at duck, we saw the Antillean Night Hawk, now very much awake, hawking insects.  The outer mangrove island is one of the last places for the endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, another endemic.  We saw some flyby, and for a moment I saw one landed, but they quickly drop into the thick cover.

We stopped to eat at La Paraquera, a nice, small fishing village off Hy 324.  We made our way once again up Hy 149, which looked like a one way road, but was indeed a main highway.  The laid back people sat on the curb of this highway, as that was the front step of many of the homes.  The homes are built on near shear cliffs, and several just drove off the highway on to their roofs.  At one spot, and not a wide spot in the road, was a basketball hoop, with a giant picture of Michael Jordan.  If the ball gets off the court (highway), it could fall hundreds of feet.  The roads were wet from the 1" plus rain, and every frog in Puerto Rico was out making an alarming chorus, quite mesmerizing, until I realized Leo had every intention to go back through that hazardous, clay road through the Shade Tree Coffee Plantation.  The trip up this slick, non-road was scary.  I have never seen four wheel drive used in low range quite as much as was necessary on this trip.  Once again, the Jeep came through the mud and the clay, returning to the country house once again at 10:30, to the calls of the Screech Owls, muffled by the now deafening chorus of Go Ke frogs which came to life with the heavy rains.

On Saturday we rose again before 6am to the Jungle Fowl Alarm where we were greeted to the Puerto Rican Green Mango, and we saw a small flocks of Orange-cheeked Waxbill and of Nutmeg Manikin, all on the road out of the country house.  We went to a giant sinkhole where we experienced another challenging decent, possibly 2000' down into this sinkhole in the mountains.  It was dead quiet, no sounds of civilization, while the sounds of the Bullfinch and other birds echoed from the jungle to those sheer cliffs.  I asked if there was a way out, and Leo said the only way out is back up that same trail, so once again, it was 4WD, low range.  Truly, these drives, these adventures, were a large part of this exciting Puerto Rico experience.

We ventured over to the Gambalache Reserve off 682 west from Barcoleneta.  When you miss the Reserve, just turn around and come back east, as the sign can only be seen traveling west to east.  I normally go on these trips only asking for a quality trip, but I did have my heart set on the Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo.  We heard it every day, but did not see one.  We walked up a dirt trail and observed Puerto Rican Green Mango, Puerto Rican Woodpecker and Red-legged Thrasher.  Finally Leo became animated, indicating he had seen the Lizard Cuckoo.  At that moment, the park ranger came down the rough trail with a 4 wheeled machine.  Such a let down, but all was not lost.  These birds do fly, but mostly hop from branch to branch, similar to some parrots, looking for lizards.  Leo spotted the Lizard Cuckoo again, and we watched it for a full five minutes as it posed at every angle for us, including the view just like Raffaele's Guide Book Cover.  What a wonderful sight, big as a crow, very graceful.

This reserve also produced Mangrove Cuckoo, Antillean Mango, Adelaide Warbler, Puerto Rican Tody, Stripe-headed Tanager and Black whiskered Vireo.  Leo showed me the vines which housed the vanilla bean, the diminutive Little Angel Orchid next to a hornets nest in that open, long tapered shape, as those dazzling, giant, black and iridescent blue winged butterflies graced the forest.  On our way out of the area we saw the Puerto Rican Flycatcher and more masked ducks at the sinkhole.

* Mark Oberle put me in contact with Leopoldo Miranda.  Mark and his family have been living in Puerto Rico and are completing a CD-ROM which is going to cover the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, with more than 200 species including accidentals.

The trip, the tour, the people we met, the guide, were all laid back, casual, no rushing about.  It was a perfect pace to my liking.  Leo always found tasty yet healthy food in these remote locales.  This was the most unforgettable Birding Experience I have ever had.  Thank you Leopoldo and thank you Puerto Rico for your wonderful conservation effort.

Mike Houle
La Crosse WI

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