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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Puerto Rico

2011 Narrative

In Brief: This year’s WINGS tour to Puerto Rico was a great success. Although islands in the Greater Antilles don’t hold the same diversity of species as mainland sites in the tropics, they have a higher rate of endemism and hold many regional specialties that combine for an exciting birding trip.  On this year’s tour we encountered 16 of the 17 endemics (all except the Puerto Rican Parrot, which is virtually impossible to see during the breeding season due to forest closures), and 111 species overall. I suspect that for most of this year’s participants the highlight species for the trip was likely the jewel-like Puerto Rican Tody, but honorable mention must go to the surprisingly attractive Puerto Rican Bullfinch, the sprightly and enigmatic Elfin-Woods Warbler (which we saw well, and easily this year), and the charismatic Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo.  In addition to the endemics, Puerto Rico offers a nice array of Caribbean specialties.  Some non-endemic highlights on the 2011 tour included a sizeable flock of West Indian Whistling-Ducks, several large bodied Scaly-naped Pigeons and a couple of the globally scarce and colorful Plain Pigeons, an amazingly cooperative Key-West Quail-Dove, no fewer than three Ruddy Quail-Doves, and the unique Antillean Crested Hummingbird.  I can think of few better places for a relaxed weeklong trip in the Caribbean than the beautiful and accessible island of Puerto Rico.

In Detail:  We started the trip by heading east out of San Juan, to explore the relatively humid Northeast corner of the island.  A short stop near the town of Fajardo produced excellent looks at the colorful Green-throated Carib, and the unique and charismatic Antillean Crested Hummingbird.  Also present were our first two endemics, the Puerto Rican Spindalis, and a pair of Puerto Rican Orioles (a recent split from the now defunct Greater Antillean Oriole), as well as Pearly-eyed Thrashers and Black-faced Grassquit.  Along the coast nearby we watched a flyby Brown Booby amid several Magnificent Frigatebirds, Laughing Gulls, and Royal and Sandwich Terns.  A little to the south, near Humacao we visited a nice wetland adjacent to a beautiful white sand beach where we saw two more Puerto Rican endemics; the Puerto Rico Flycatcher and the gaudy Puerto Rican Woodpecker.  Also present were some Caribbean Coots, a few White-cheeked Pintail, Least and Pied-billed Grebes and four (introduced) Pin-tailed Whydahs.  Of particular interest was a pair of very cooperative Mangrove Cuckoos that we found along one of the forested trails.  After lunch we drove over to our hotel for the evening, in the Northwest corner of the island.

Early the next morning we visited the Cambalache State Forest.  This nice patch of mature forest harbors many bromeliads, thick vine tangles and a wealth of tree diversity. Along the forest trails there was much birdsong, with Adelaide’s Warblers and Puerto Rican and Black-whiskered Vireos providing an almost constant backdrop din.  Over a very enjoyable three hours of birding we turned up several Puerto Rican Todys and Puerto Rican Vireos, as well as Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, Puerto Rican Spindalis and Puerto Rican Bullfinch!  We then explored a nearby marsh, where we hoped to find the frustratingly difficult Yellow-breasted Crake.  Although we failed to connect with the crake, a Least Bittern flew up from the reeds, and we enjoyed our first looks at Yellow-faced Grassquit and the introduced Orange-cheeked Waxbills in the grasses along the lake margins.  After lunch we stopped in at a roadside cliff overlook, where several pairs of White-tailed Tropicbirds plied the skies.  Enroute to our hotel in Guanica we made a brief stop along the island’s west coast to view our first Antillean Mango which was foraging very tamely in a patch of flowers along the beach.

The dry southwestern corner of the island was our backdrop for Day 3.  This segment of the island owes its arid nature to the rain shadow cast by the mountainous central spine of the island. It is a varied landscape with the scrubby, cactus filled forests and agricultural lands standing in sharp contrast to the many freshwater wetlands, mangrove forests and saltpans that dot the region.  Whenever one birds islands the highlight species are undoubtedly the endemics, and we enjoyed close views of a pair of the critically endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds feeding in a small yard, and several Adelaide’s Warblers singing from scrubby forest patches.  In the mangrove forests of Boqueron we found two pairs of Puerto Rican Pewees (currently considered a part of Lesser Antillean Pewee, but surely a full species).  The non-endemics were nice too, with fine views of marsh birds such as West Indian Whistling-Duck, Purple Gallinule, Caribbean Coots, and Glossy Ibis, a wonderful study of side-by-side Stilt, Semipalmated, Western and Least Sandpipers, and several Caribbean Elaenias in dry scrub forest.  A few exotic species provided some excitement with views of large flocks of Orange-cheeked Waxbills and Orange Bishops and a single Bronze Munia.  After dinner we visited an area that harbored several vocal Puerto Rican Nightjars, and with some effort we located two individuals calling from short bushes along the road.

Day four found us traveling uphill to visit the Maricao State Forest.  This protected area harbors a unique elfin forest along a montane ridge, with small-leafed and small-statured trees, and numerous flowers.  On the drive up we stopped for a Ruddy Quail-Dove that was walking across the road (our first of 3 for the day) and were surprised to find a pair of the enigmatic Elfin Woods Warbler foraging above the road.  First described in 1971, this active species is still poorly known and with a recent estimation of about 600 individuals is also quite rare.  We then visited the now abandoned grounds of a montane hotel; where in short time we found Puerto Rican Emerald, Green Mango, Scaly-naped Pigeon, and a pair of Antillean Euphonias.  Stopping along the road at a few pullouts we located a great fruiting tree that was stuffed with Puerto Rican Spindalis and Tanagers, and several attractive Red-legged Thrushes. After dinner we set out to looks for Puerto Rican Screech-Owl, and within about 10 minutes of walking along a road we had a bird fly right in over our heads and perch, showing the species characteristic drooped wing posture. 

On our last full day we revisited a few of the better spots in the southwest corner, finding a flock of 17 West Indian Whistling-Ducks in the rapidly drying out Laguna Cartegena, and then made a mid-morning stop at the Susua State Forest where we enjoyed lengthy and fantastic views of a singing Key West Quail-Dove that stayed in place for almost an hour!  After lunch we made the drive back to San Juan, stopping along the way to view several Plain Pigeons (which are anything but plain) coming in to roost at a known stakeout in the mountains.  It was a fine way to cap an excellent trip to Puerto Rico!

- Gavin Bieber

Updated: April 2011