Birding the Americas Trip Report and Planning Repository
Return to the Main Index

Return to the North America Index
Return to the Caribbean Index
Return to the Puerto Rico Index


6 - 8 August 1998

by Joseph Brooks and Garry George

References:  Herbert Rafaelle, A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, 1998
                    Herbert Rafaelle, A Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the V.I., 1989
                    Roland H. Wauer, A Birder's West Indies
                    Trip Reports and shared information

A visit to Joseph's parents in south Florida is always an opportunity to step off into another adventure in the Tropics.  I've been obsessed with David Quammen's book The Song of the Dodo about biogeography in the age of extinction as evidenced primarily on islands so the choice was clear - the Caribbean.  We saved $200 each by booking flights from LA to W. Palm Beach instead of Miami ($272 round on American even though we changed planes in Dallas) and spent the savings on tickets to Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic ($429 round from Miami).

National Rent-A-Car, the company of choice for unmarried couples, confirmed a car in Puerto Rico ($42/day including tax) and a four wheel drive Chevy Blazer in Santo Domingo ($282.75 for three days including tax and damage waiver which is mandatory).  Martin Reid recommended Jose Colon ($125/day plus food and lodging, 787-871-2948 phone and fax) as a guide in Puerto Rico, and when we read his intro in Herb Raffaele's new A Guide to Birds of the Caribbean, released one week before our departure, we considered ourselves lucky to be travelling with such an expert ornithologist and conservationist.  Jose recommended his friend Simon Guerrero in DR, also author of the intro on DR in the new guide.  Simon's duties with the Santo Domingo zoo eliminated him as a guide so we contacted Dr. Francisco Rivas ($80/day plus food and lodging, 809-562-2070 fax) and made plans to travel with him and his partner Kate Wallace.  Kate re-confirmed the Chevy Blazer twice for us since rental car franchises can be so unreliable as reported in the trip reports I had received.

In Florida, we made our annual pilgrimage to Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge where we saw 15 Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) during a two hour walk through the refuge as well as a Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) which flew across the high road in the back and a Limpkin (Aramus guarauna).  Early the next morning we headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico and the 16 endemic species recorded there.  We picked up our first island endemic from the shuttle bus to the rental car lot - Greater Antillean Grackle (Quiscalus niger).  Jose met us there and we drove to Sierra de Luquillo and the Caribbean National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S.

Driving into the park we spotted Scaly-naped Pigeon (Columba squamosa), Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita) and Common Ground Dove (Columbina passerina) and Monk Parakeet (Myipsitta monachus) where the forest met the houses.  Gray Kingbird (Tyrannus domenicensis) was common throughout the trip.  We birded a turnout known as El Verde seeing a Puerto Rican Tanager (Nesospingus speculiferus) and the ubiquitous Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), the first of many.  Our first Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) silently popped in popped out.  Jose had advised us not to even try for the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), one of the rarest birds in the world.

There are only around fifty currently left in the wild and around twice that in captivity, a recovery from a low of thirteen in the wild in 1975.  Herbert Rafaelle writes that the decline is due to several factors including cutting of forests especially in the lowlands and especially big old trees with nesting holes, shooting by farmers as crop pests, collection for the pet trade, predation by arboreal Brown or Roof Rat, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, a warble fly and Red-Tailed Hawk.  Jose explained that there are only three or four pairs actually breeding - a skimpy gene pool by any standards for this species trapped in an island on an island with no chance of dispersal.  I buy lottery tickets, and I couldn't possibly go to Puerto Rico without at least a chance at one of the rarest birds in the world.  Jose obliged and took us to a slope of El Yunque where he heard the parrots a few years ago.  An unobstructed view of the valley below gave us false hope.  Does the possibility of seeing a rare bird affect all birders the same - heightened senses, sweaty palms, reverential silence, a meditative state?  We stood.  We watched.  We waited for an hour.  We were rewarded with a view in the scope of Puerto Rican Emerald (Chlorostilbon maugaeus) a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and a sighting of a Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata) reminding us of Uganda.  But no parrot on the brink of extinction.

We drove out of Sierra de Luquillo and then East toward Fajardo stopping there to look for hummers in a parking lot but finding a pair of Puerto Rican Woodpecker (Melanerpes portoricensis) working a tree right by a busy road.  We stopped at the blooming flame trees (Jose called them "flamboyant" and we called them "royal poinciana" and they are from Madagascar) along the road.  We spotted our first Green-throated Caribe (Eulampis holosericeus) in someone's back yard and birded a park in Fajardo where a female Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus) zipped by on a mission in the bougainvillea.  A noisy pair of Canary-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris versicolurus) flew over and reminded us of Los Angeles.  We drove the road to Cabezas de San Juan Nature Preserve and in the hot, mangrove habitat saw a Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) overhead and we pished in a Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia).  The Yellow Warbler group might be split and this is a candidate.

Ten feet away on different mud flats, five Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris) sunned and preened, thinking they were hidden.  They are resident on Puerto Rico so I couldn't put them in a sub-species as the U.S.  clappers, but definitely buffy instead of cinnamon and gray with lighter barring than I'm used to on the West Coast - more like crepitans than yumanensis.  Herons (Great Blue) were hunting and egrets (Great, Cattle) hunkered in the noon heat.  We ate fried mackerel in a seaside restaurant across from the beach where Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla) flew by occasionally and jet skis polluted our environment.  "There is a government campaign to promote jet skis.  I don't understand it," Jose shook his head as another roared by.

After lunch we drove to Humacao Nature Reserve on the East Coast.  A W. Indian Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna arborea) had been seen there.  We walked the path to the lagoons stopping to get a male Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus) and another Green-throated Caribe in the scope while they were feeding on a flamboyan (poinciana).  In the lagoons we found Pied- billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), White-cheeked Pintail (Anas bahamensis), Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), herons (Tricolored, Little Blue, Great Blue, Green), Egrets (Great, Cattle), Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus), Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) and the island Caribbean Coot (Fulica caribaea).  Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva) flew over the lagoon and we spotted a pair of out-of-place Orange-cheeked Waxbill (Estrilda melpoda) that belonged in Africa.  Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) hid in the bushes.  One of the rangers pointed us toward a bush in the lagoon where she had seen the W. Indian Whistling Duck fly into a few mornings ago, and we stood there for almost an hour hoping that the nocturnal duck might make an appearance in the daylight.  We joked about throwing rocks into the bush to flush the rare duck but finally gave up as the reserve closed.

We drove the rest of the way to Guanica on the Southwest corner.  Dry, arid, thorn and scrub forest dominated the habitat and we drove into the forest passing through a gate to which Jose had a key.  A much-needed heavy rain had just ended and there was a lot of activity.  In rapid succession we cleaned up on endemics as Puerto Rican Vireo (Vireo latimeri), not endemic Black-whiskered Vireo (Vireo altiloquus), Adelaide's Warbler (Dendroica adelaidae), Puerto Rican Bullfinch (Loxigilla portoricensis), a skulking Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (Saurothera vieilloti) with red skin patch around the eye, and a perched Antillean Mango (Anthracothorax dominicus), all gave us amazing views in less than an hour.  A pair of Black-faced Grassquit (Tiaris bicolor) foraged nearby.  We drove higher to the ranger station and birded around the trees there hearing the crazy call of a Pearly-eyed Thrasher (Margarops fuscatus) then finally seeing it.

As it began to get dark we could hear the Antillean Nighthawk (Chordeiles gundlachii) calling and then the rare Puerto Rican Nightjar (Caprimulgus noctitherus).  With one play of the tape two of the nightjars flew overhead and perched in a tree nearby.  We spotted them and studied the white outer tail feathers and white throat band that identified this bird as a male.  A close look at a bird we had worried about.  It was dark, and we drove the rest of the day to Reserva Forestal Maricao and our lodgings at Hacienda Juanita ($75/nt each person including taxes), stopping in San German at a Pollo Tropical in a shopping mall (good food actually) for dinner.

After we had checked in, we took our spotlight and headed down a path just west of the cabins and played the Puerto Rican Screech-Owl (Otus nudipes) tape.  The sound of a landing on a branch nearby gave us a start and we spotted the long-legged owl about ten feet in front of us,eye level giving us the hairy eyeball.  We looked, apologized for the disruption, and crept back up the path to a chorus of calls from the irritated owl.  The owl was replaced by a chorus of Coqui frogs (named for the sound they make) as we came back to the hacienda and we searched the leaves of the tea plants until we finally found one and got a good look.  Unfolding our mosquito netting (there is an outbreak of dengue fever in Puerto Rico) we couldn't believe how many endemics we had seen, how easy the drives were and how cooperative most of the birds were.

6 a.m.  After a disappointing breakfast (omlettes with fake cheese!) we headed up Hwy 120 stopping at mile marker 13.1 and walking into the forest there.  In this higher altitude topping out at 883 meters (2,772.62 ft) lichen covers parts of the trees, and we found the elusive Elfin Woods Warbler (Dendroica angelae) discovered in 1971.  We had three of them in one tree busily foraging for insects.  From a branch a green and red bird the size of a hummingbird sallied and perched like a flycatcher.  There was a male Puerto Rican Tody (Todus mexicanus), the Latin misnomer caused by a mistake in labeling of specimens.  The bird emitted a loud, nasal beep-beep.
Driving a little farther past a stone observation tower to the Monte del Estado Centro de Vaccione we pulled into the parking lot next to four Puerto Ricans blasting rap music from their car radio.  We pulled out our scope and set it up and of course they got curious.  Jose got in the usual educational conversation with them about the value of the birds and we got our scope on a perched male Green Mango (Anthracothroax viridis), a Puerto Rican Emerald, the recently split Puerto Rican Pewee (Contopus portoricensis), Antillean Euphonia (Euphonia musica) with yellow throats and candidates for an upcoming split, and Puerto Rican Stripe-headed Tanager (Spindalis portoricensis), another recent split by Raffaele which hasn't been accepted by the AOU yet.  A Black-cowled Oriole (Icterus dominicensis) zipped through stopping in the light long enough for a good look and we found a Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis) which continues to extend its range in the Antilles and parasitises the nests of endangered species such as PR Vireo and Yellow-shouldered Blackbird.

A little further on we stopped at the Maricao Fish Hatchery but didn't see anything new.  Heading Southwest, we reached the hot, dry, coastal scrub habitat of Bosque Estatal de Boqueron.  We searched through the acacias finally finding a Caribbean Elaenia (Elaenia martinica) in poor plumage without a tail.  The poor thing was practically panting in the heat.  We spotted an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), much lighter than the kestrels in California.  A Troupial (Icterus icterus) brought us out of heat-induced torpor, standing out like a bright light in the dull brown habitat.  A border patrol vehicle passed us with two refugees they caught on the coast.  Jose opined that they were from Dominican Republic or Haiti, foreshadowing our experiences there.  We drove over a sand spit onto the beach and stopped to bird a shallow lagoon between the ocean and the scrub forest finding shorebirds including Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs (side by side for comparison), Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, Semipalmated & Wilson's Plovers and calling Killdeer.  Down the beach perched on a dead palm trunk we found the only Caribbean Martin (Progne domenicensis) we would see that day and another Caribbean Elaenia in much better plumage.

We drove further down the coast to the Pitahaya Refuge, coastal mangroves.  We heard a Mangrove Cuckoo (Coccyzus minor) and got out of the car to try to see it when over our heads flew a black bird which perched inside some fallen scrub making loud chucks and whistles.  There was critically endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird (Agelaius xanthomus)!  We contorted our bodies until we could see inside and there was a banded bird looking back at us.  Another flew in on an open branch and we had good looks at it as well.  On the way out we stopped at Cabo Rojo Wildlife Refuge, an old radar/espionage station where Jose used to do research but the only new birds we saw were Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris), again reminding us of Uganda, and African Silverbill (Lonchura cantans).

On down the highway for an hour or more through San German and Sabana Grande until we found the poorly marked left hand turn sign to Bosque Estatal de Susua where we spent the rest of the day hoping for Quail-Dove.  Plenty of Red-legged Thrush and we heard Quail- Dove but we spent two and a half-hours there and never saw one.  We had seen almost everything in less than two days so we decided to come back and try again the next morning.  Once we were back in Maricao Forest the sound of the frogs was tremendous.  Jose pointed out a melodious frog that sounded like a bell.  We sat in the dark and listened to the symphony.  I've never heard anything like it since a chorus in Malaysia.  Back to Parador Hacienda Juanita for another average meal (I ordered one half of a chicken and they brought me two legs - I guess it was the bottom half!) which I sent back.  The wine was good.

Jose had heard a Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus) early the next morning so we tried to call one in using a tape recording but no luck.  We set out down the highway only about a mile when we heard another Loggerhead Kingbird calling.  We set up the scope and found him in the top of a tree, called him down and had a good look for breakfast.  An hour more and we were in Bosque Estatal de Susua again where we took another trail this time and spotted a Quail-Dove in the road.  Jose insisted it was a Key West but we weren't sure.  It looked like a Ruddy to us, but it was the only Quail-Dove we saw and we puzzled over it.

Walking on, we saw another Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo, a Mangrove Cuckoo tearing apart a paper wasp nest eating the larvae, another look at Antillean Euphonia and more good looks at some of the birds we had become familiar with.  We had seen all the endemics more than once and now what?  I wanted to go back to Luquillo to stand on the slope overlooking the valley where the parrot might be but I was outvoted due to the distance and the desire to make a run for Plain Pigeon (Columba inornata), a rarity on Puerto Rico.  Back through Sabana Grande where we stopped for breakfast at a pastry shop.  The iron colonial grillwork architecture across the street drew me out of the shop for an inspection and photos, and the sounds of rhythmic music drew me further down the street.  I peaked into a small beauty shop where four musicians were playing music - obviously there was no business that day.  Singing, percussion and guitars created bolero/meringue at 11 in the morning.  Goes well with pastry and coffee.

We drove to Cidra scanning riversides, standing in cowshit overlooking valleys (pleased to find out there's no chiggers or ticks in PR), and looking in the tops of all bare branches for the bird, finally finding three perched near an intersection where we set up the scope and had a feast.  We dropped Jose off at a friends house near the airport, drove over the long bridge to the airport adding Sandwich Tern (Terna sandsandvicensis) to our list.  We had seen all the endemics (except the Parrot) well and more than once, and picked up some other good birds as well.  The roads were fine, the accommodations decent although expensive for what they were, and Jose was amazing.  It was fun, easy and relaxed birding in Puerto Rico.  The Dominican Republic would be a different story.


Pied-billed Grebe    Podilymbus podiceps
     Humacao Nature Reserve. One swimming in the lagoon
Magnificent Frigatebird  Fregata magnificens
     Road to Cabezos de San Juan.  Habitat: Mangroves, One flying overhead
White-cheeked Pintail  Anas bahamensis
     Humacao NR. One swimming in lagoon
Tricolored Heron    Egretta tricolor
     Humacao NR
Little Blue Heron    Egretta caerulea
     Humacao NR
Great Blue Heron    Ardea herodias
     Fajardo area; Humacao NR
Great Egret     Ardea alba
     Road to Cabezos de San Juan; Humacao
Cattle Egret    Bubulcus ibis
     Road to Cabezos de San Juan; Humacao
Green Heron     Butorides  virescens
     Humacao NR
Least Bittern    Ixobrychus exilis
     Humacao NR
Turkey Vulture   Cathartes aura
     Bosque Estatal de Susua
Osprey    Pandion haliaetus
American Kestrel    Falco sparverius
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron (dry coastal scrub);Cipra
Helmeted Guineafowl   Numida meleagris
     Cabo Rojo Wildlife Refuge; Cipra
Clapper Rail    Rallus longirostris
     Mangroves at Cabezos de San Juan.  Five individuals sunning, preening, great looks
Purple Gallinule    Porphyrio martinicus
     Humacao NR
Common Moorhen   Gallinula chloropus
     Humacao NR L
Caribbean Coot   Fulica caribaea
     Humacao NR
Greater Yellowlegs   Tringa melanoleuca
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Lesser Yellowlegs    Tringa flavipes
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Spotted Sandpiper    Tringa macularia
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Willet     Catoptrophorus semipalmatus
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Short-billed Dowitcher  Limnodromus griseus
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Stilt Sandpiper   Micropalama himantopus
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Black-necked Stilt   Himantopus mexicanus
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron;Cipra
Semipalmated Plover   Charadrius semipalmatus
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Wilson's Plover   Charadrius wilsonia
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
Killdeer     Charadrius vociferus
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron ; Cipra
Laughing Gull   Larus atricilla
     Road to Cabezos de San Juan
Sandwich Tern   Sterna sandvicensis
     Road to San Juan airport
Rock Dove     Columba livia
L Scaly-naped Pigeon  Columba squamosa
     Fajardo; Cipra      Seen with scope
L  Plain Pigeon   Columba inornata
     Cipra.  Three individuals perched in a tree seen with scope L  Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita Humacao NR; Guanica Forest;
    Parking lot, Monte del Estado Centro de Vacacione on rt  22 past stone observation tower; Cipra.  The most common dove
    other than Rock Dove
White-winged Dove    Zenaida asiatica
Common Ground-Dove  Columbina passerina
     Gunica Forest; Bosque Estatal de Susua
Ruddy Quail-Dove    Geotrygon montana
     Bosque Estatal de Susua
Monk Parakeet   Myiopsitta monachus
     El Yunque - el verde west slope
Canary-winged Parakeet  Brotogeris versicolurus
Mangrove Cuckoo   Coccyzus  minor
     Bosque Estatal de Susua.  Three individuals.  One individual seen tearing up wasp nest and eating larvae.
EL Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo  Saurothera vieilloti
     Guanica Forest; Bosque Estatal de Susua.  Responded to tape and seen well
Smooth-billed Ani    Crotophaga ani
     Humacao NR
EL Puerto Rican Screech-Owl   Otus nudipes
     Hacienda Juanita, Maricao State Forest. Responded to tape and seen well about six feet away perched on a branch about
     five feet from ground
Antillean Nighthawk    Chordeiles gundlachii
     Guanica Forest
EL Puerto Rican Nightjar  Caprimulgus  noctitherus
     Guanica Forest.  Responded to tape, perched on tree limb about ten feet from ground, seen well in spotlight
L  Antillean Mango   Anthracothorax dominicus
     Guanica Forest; Parking lot, Monte Del Estado Centro de Vaccione on rte 22 past stone observation tower; Bosque estatal
     de Susua
EL Green Mango    Anthracothorax viridis
     Maricao State Forest
L  Green-throated Carib  Eulampis  holosericeus
     Parking lot, Monte Del Estado Centro de Vacacione on rte 22 past stone observation tower; Maricao Fish Hatchery
L  Antillean Crested Hummingbird Orthorhyncus cristatus
     Humacao NR      Perched male seen with scope
EL Puerto Rican Emerald  Chlorostilbon maugaeus
     El Yunque west slope
EL Puerto Rican Tody   Todus mexicanus
     Maricao State Forest near mile marker 13.1; Bosque Estatal de Susua
EL Puerto Rican Woodpecker  Melanerpes portoricensis
     Fajardo; Bosque Estatal de Boqueron Male and female seen ten feet away
L  Caribbean Elaenia   Elaenia martinica
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron (dry coastal);
EL Puerto Rican Pewee  Contopus  portoricensis
     Parking lot, Monte del Estado Centro de Vacacione ; Bosque Estatal de Boqueron; Cabo Rojo WR
Gray Kingbird   Tyrannus dominicensis
     Common in almost all locations
L  Loggerhead Kingbird   Tyrannus caudifasciatus
     Maricao State Forest near Hacienda Juanita. Heard first, found high in tree far away but seen with scope
EL Puerto Rican Vireo  Vireo latimeri
     Guanica Forest
Black-whiskered Vireo  Vireo altiloquus
     Guanica Forest
L  Red-legged Thrush   Turdus plumbeus
     Bosque Estatal de Susua
Northern Mockingbird  Mimus polyglottos
L  Pearly-eyed Thrasher  Margarops fuscatus
     Guanica Forest; Bosque Estatal de Susua
L  Caribbean Martin   Progne dominicensis
     Bosque Estatal de Boqueron ; Cipra
Cave Swallow   Petrochelidon fulva
     Humacao NR; Cipra
House Sparrow   Passer domesticus
     Maricao State Forest
Orange-cheeked Waxbill  Estrilda melpoda
     Humacao NR
L  African Silverbill   Lonchura cantans
     Cabo Rojo NWR
Bronze Mannikin   Lonchura cucullata
     El Yunque west slope
Yellow Warbler   Dendroica petechia
     Cabezos de San Juan NR
EL Adelaide's Warbler  Dendroica adelaidae
     Guanica Forest; Maricao State Forest at mile marker 13.1; Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
EL Elfin Woods Warbler   Dendroica angelae
     Maricao State Forest at mile marker 13.1, Four individuals seen over one hour period  Bananaquit Coereba flaveola  Most
     common species seen at all altitudes
EL Puerto Rican Tanager  Nesospingus speculiferus
     El Verde (west slope of El Yunque)
EL Puerto Rican Stripe-headed Tanager Spindalis portoricensis
     Parking lot, Monte del Estado Centro de Vaccion, Maricao Fish Hatchery; Bosque Estatal de Susua
L  Antillean Euphonia  Euphonia musica
     Bosque Estatal de Susua
L  Black-faced Grassquit  Tiaris bicolor
     Bosque Estatal de Susua
EL Puerto Rican Bullfinch  Loxigilla portoricensis
     Guanica Forest; Bosque Estatal de Susua  Troupial  Icterus icterus Bosque Estatal de Boqueron
EL Yellow-shouldered Blackbird   Agelaius xanthomus
E  Greater Antillean Grackle   Quiscalus niger
     San Juan Airport, then seen frequently in cities such as Fajardo

79 Species

E is Endemic
L is Lifer

Garry George,
los angeles,

Birding Top 500 Counter