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Big Day (Bird Race)

22 January 1996

by Pamela Hunt

It was late December 1995, and in preparation for a research trip to Puerto Rico in January I looked up the island's Big Day record.  Much to my surprise, there wasn't one; this was going to be easy.

During the course of our research, we were able to scope out several locations in southwest Puerto Rico, and figured we could get around 85 species on this, our first, attempt.  Thus emboldened, the four of us headed into the predawn darkness on January 22nd.

Our first stop was Laguna Cartagena, the largest freshwater marsh on the island, and until recently one of the most productive birding areas.  Currently, increasing eutrophication has resulted in most of the wetland being overgrown by cattails, with subsequent declines in waterfowl and other species.  Things were slow here, and by dawn we had only tallied about a half-dozen species, the highlight of which was Sora.  After sunrise, we also managed to pick up Pied-billed Grebe, a variety of passerines, and more Soras.  Despite the relative scarcity of birds, or perhaps because of it, we were already behind schedule when we left, but figured we could make it up somewhere.

The next stop was the varied habitat at Boqueron State Forest, where our list grew more rapidly.  Highlights included two Sharp-shinned Hawks (rare and local in PR), and a flock of endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds, our first endemic species for the day.  Caribbean Elaenias, Troupials, and Adelaide's Warblers were everywhere, and a few shorebirds made their first appearance.  But the main shorebird spot was next on the list: the Cabo Rojo salt flats.

Here, after much discussion and changing of minds, we added both Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers to the list, as well as more identifiable species.  The staked out Whimbrels, however, could not be found (until later in the week, that is).  At the Cabo Rojo lighthouse, I caught a brief glimpse of a Brown Booby as it flew behind a headland, but no one else saw it.  Luckily, at a later stop, Ben saw a booby fly behind a rocky island, and after an interminable wait, it reappeared, and was seen by all.

We headed north, still behind schedule, to another piece of Boqueron State Forest, an extensive black mangrove forest where we had several species lined up (it was our waterthrush study area).  A flock of Blue-winged Teal along the way was a welcome boost to our spirits, as it saved us having to detour for a stake-out later in the day.  Thus, more or less back on schedule, we hit the mangroves, and quite efficiently found all our target species: Common Snipe, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (on a nest), Lesser Antillean Pewee, Puerto Rican Woodpecker, and Northern Parula, as well as a bonus Mangrove Cuckoo.

Leaving the southwest coast, we headed to the city of San German to look for exotics, and a few mid-elevation species.  While wandering around the campus of the Interamerican University, we managed to scrape up Green Mango and Pearly-eyed Thrasher, but very little else (not even many Bananaquits).  On our way out, Shan spotted a parakeet flying over a field, but a quick turn around and chase failed to relocate the ungrateful beast.  But Shan was comfortable with "parakeet sp.", and off we went, albeit once again behind schedule.

Around 1330 we pulled into the city of Sabana Grande, gateway to the highlands of Maricao State Forest, where a number of species were going to be fairly easy to add.  However, not long after leaving town on the way uphill, we encountered a "detour" sign and a woman with a construction zone flag.  She didn't seem overly concerned with flagging however, and since the detour sign had been present when we scouted Maricao a couple of weeks earlier, we continued on by (Ben did comment that she started flailing her flag around after we passed her, however).

It turned out that this time the detour was real, as we discovered when we rounded a bend to see a large piece of construction equipment blocking the road.  OK, we figured, all we need to do is follow the detour signs and we'll be on our way.  Easier said than done.  After the first detour, there were no further indications of where to go,and we spent close to an hour wandering around all the sidestreets in a housing development on the outskirts of Sabana Grande.  Eventually we gave in and asked the flagwoman how to get to Maricao, to which she responded (and I translate freely) "you can't get there from here".  It turns out that the only way to get to Maricao would be to go around from the opposite side of the mountains; not an option given our current schedule.  Things were not looking good.

In an effort to cut our montane losses, we tried driving uphill to the east of Sabana Grande, but only encountered overgrazed hillsides and Gray Kingbirds.  Thus, before it got any more frustrating, we headed southeast to Guanica State Forest, the end of the line in terms of our Big Day planning.  Guanica is a dry forest, and as a result there was VERY little bird activity in the late afternoon.  In fact the only species we added was Puerto Rican Bullfinch, our first addition since the parakeet over three hours previously.  I was starting to think I was doing an off-season Big Day in New Hampshire.  Since the main part of Guanica is gated, we had to leave at 1700, and, our options exhausted, headed down to the staked out Blue-winged Teal spot.  They were still there (although redundant of course), but almost everything else was either a Gray Kingbird or Adelaide's Warbler.  It seemed like it was taking forever to get dark.

We wanted darkness because our last leg was to return to Guanica and walk the access road at dusk.  A previous trip had netted three endemics at this time of day: Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, Nightjar, and Screech-Owl, and we were hoping for at least 2 of the 3.  Right at the gate, we got a different endemic, Puerto Rican Emerald, followed by the cuckoo and the nightjar, but no owl.  Thus, with the calls of the nightjars echoing in our minds we called it a day at 1930.  The final total was 74 species, despite Ben and I's attempt to turn a toad into an owl when we got home.  Next time, and there WILL be a next time, we'll get to Maricao and beat this number handily.

In the end, we managed to find 9 of Puerto Rico's 14 endemic species.  If we had reached Maricao and had better luck with the owl, we could have found 13 of them (all except the critically endangered parrot, which doesn't occur along our route).  We also had terrible luck with respect to migrant warblers.  Only Northern Waterthrushes were common, and the rest of this group was represented by a single parula, 3-4 Prairies, and a Yellow-rump.  Pretty pathetic actually.

And then, in reading the 1995 Big Day report, I find that there actually IS a Puerto Rico record.  Second best will have to do .....  for now."

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