The unique and colorful birds of the West Indies right at your doorstep: Birding Puerto Rico

Greater Antillean Grackles and Gray Kingbirds are common throughout Puerto Rico (top), the endemic Puerto Rican Tody is widespread and once the distinct buzzy call is learned easily observed. The Red-legged Thrush is a regional endemic that can be seen in backyards of San Juan and in the mountains. Photos Stephan Lorenz.

Greater Antillean Grackles and Gray Kingbirds are common throughout Puerto Rico (top), the endemic Puerto Rican Tody is widespread and once the distinct buzzy call is learned easily observed. The Red-legged Thrush is a regional endemic that can be seen in backyards of San Juan and in the mountains. Photos Stephan Lorenz.

Puerto Rico offers some of the most rewarding birding in the West Indies just four hours flight from Houston. Best of all, it’s possible to leave the passport at home and just pack a pair of binoculars and the slim “Birds of the West Indies” by Princeton Field Guides. The majority of international flights arrive in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s busy capital. If pressed for time it is possible to head straight to the rainforest in the nearby Sierra de Luquillo and start knocking off some of Puerto Rico’s unique birds. For a more leisurely start, it is possible to rest up in one of many hotels fronting the local beaches.

Puerto Rico is the one of the smallest and the westernmost island of the Greater Antilles. It forms a bridge between the Greater and Lesser Antilles and its avifauna combines elements from both regions. In addition, Puerto Rico harbors sixteen to eighteen endemics, depending on taxonomy. Several species restricted to the West Indies can also be easily observed, including threatened West Indian Whistling-Ducks and Caribbean Coots. While the island’s birdlife is not as diverse as other tropical areas, I managed to record nearly 100 species in seven days of birding. A visit during spring or fall and concentrating on shorebird habitats may increase that list.

The best place to start studying the local birds is in the extensive El Yunque Park, also known as the Caribbean National Forest, where dense cloud forest clings to the steep slopes of rugged peaks that reach up to 3,500 feet at El Toro. Leaving the heavy traffic and heat of San Juan behind, we followed a narrow strip of pavement, winding higher and higher into the mountains. El Yunque is home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the critically endangered Puerto Rican Parrot. Currently, there are less than 50 birds in the wild and an active breeding program aims to increase the population. Hurricanes, which destroy potential nesting and fruiting trees, are a major threat. We didn’t expect to come across this rarely encountered endemic.

As soon as we got out of the car at the highest parking lot, we were busy sorting through our first Caribbean birds. An empty hummingbird nest on a thin branch was soon tended by a female Puerto Rican Emerald, in a fruiting tree a pair of colorful Puerto Rican Spindalis played hide and seek, and Puerto Rican Todies, tiny fluffs of bright green, red, and yellow, zipped from branch to branch. Todies belong to a small family of birds, Todidae, and are distantly related to kingfishers. The entire family, comprised of five species, is endemic to the West Indies.

We decided to tackle the El Yunque Peak Trail. Bird activity slowed along the muddy path, but trudging ahead stoically, we encountered the endemic Puerto Rican Bullfinch, shiny black males with chestnut throats and crowns, and a pair of the distinctly colored Puerto Rican Woodpeckers, noisily feeding in the canopy. When we reached the highest part of the trail, thick clouds quickly obscured the view of the Caribbean Sea far below and mist crept over the sharp ridges, dropping into deep valleys, and then rose towards us. The rainforest lived up to its reputation and a torrential downpour caught us out in the open. With temperatures dropping and birds hiding, we took the paved road closed to traffic, but open for hiking, back to the parking lot. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had arrived.

Further down the mountain, we stopped at the El Portal Visitor Center, where we learned about the ecology of the rainforest and the plight of the parrot. Ten minutes birding in the parking lot here proved very productive and we saw some widespread species, including Mangrove Cuckoo, incredibly easy to see in Puerto Rico in general, Scaly-naped Pigeons perched on tall snags, and Red-legged Thrushes hopped like robins on the cropped lawns.

In order to maximize the chances of seeing all the Puerto Rican endemics a visit to the southwest of the island is a must. Guanica State Forest has been protected since 1919 and harbors one of the best examples of tropical dry forest in the Caribbean. It does not only protect a rare and fast disappearing habitat, but also many of Puerto Rico’s endemic birds and almost all can be found along its trails and roads. The endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird and the localized Puerto Rican Nightjar are the main reasons to visit Guanica and the nearby town of La Parguera. Plus several other birds are seen more easily here than elsewhere.

The little town of La Parguera appeared comatose under the intense tropical sun when we arrived. During the week, most restaurants shut down and hotels are empty, waiting for the “fin de semana” when Puerto Ricans flock to this coastal locale. Several places offer comfortable accommodations. Mangroves and mudflats front the town, offering the chance for some leisurely balcony birding. We headed west from the center along a dusty road for about five minutes until we found the small store that for years has been attracting flocks of Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds with food and water. When we arrived all was quiet, not surprising during the middle of the day. A few Greater Antillean Grackles loafed about and a handful of doves scoured the ground for seeds. After some waiting about two dozen Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds arrived, bathing and drinking for ten minutes in plain view, the males with deep shiny black offset by a small soft yellow wing patch. A female Shiny Cowbird was also present. Parasitism by Shiny Cowbirds, in addition to habitat degradation, are the main reasons for the species’ decline and no more than 1,500 occur in the wild.

After a quick dinner patched together from snacks bought at the local grocery store, we headed over to Guanica State Forest just east of town. The main gate closes at sunset, but we planned on walking along the entrance road to look for nocturnal birds, Puerto Rican Nightjar and Puerto Rican Screech-Owl. We waited a long time until darkness. During sunset we managed to see the powder blue, black, and yellow of the Antillean Euphonia and the stout bill of a secretive Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo. Finally Puerto Rican Screech-Owls began calling, but the nightjars remained quiet. I managed to see a Puerto Rican Nightjar before sunrise the next morning, flapping above the road on stiff wings and landing on overhanging branches. The owl took more persistence and after much effort, I saw a gray-morph on the second morning. They are much larger than more familiar screech-owls.

Guanica definitely deserves at least two full days of birding. The dry forest is low and full of fragrance. Puerto Rican Vireos skulk in the thickets, colorful Adelaide’s Warblers chip everywhere, and I even stumbled upon a Puerto Rican Pewee. Along the main road, todies nest in earthen banks and Puerto Rican Flycatchers, like pale Great-crested’s, called and chased each other. Guanica is also home to secretive quail-doves and after quietly wandering along the narrow trails for several hours, I finally saw the more common Key West Quail-Dove after it flushed atop a low branch.

Laguna Cartagena is a worthwhile side trip thirty minutes from La Parguera. One of the largest wetlands on the island, it supports the vulnerable West Indian Whistling-Duck along with large numbers of more widespread water birds. The tall grasses around the marshes harbored huge flocks of introduced weavers and finches. Orange Bishops fluttered among the reeds and big mixed flocks of Orange-cheeked Waxbills and Nutmeg Mannikins flushed as I walked passed. Puerto Rico has a wide assortment of introduced bird species that add an interesting twist to birding the region. For example we saw several Blue-and-yellow Macaws in San Juan and the bizarre Venezuelan Troupial in the cactus strewn flats near Cabo Rojo.

While the coastal area of the southwest offers an amazing diversity of birds, we headed back into the mountains to catch up with one of the most unique endemics of Puerto Rico. The somber black and whites of the Elfin-woods Warbler where overlooked by science until the 1970s. This small bird, which superficially resembles a Black-and-white Warbler, but is smaller and much more active, is best found in the Maricao State Forest just inland from Guanica. The road into the mountains is narrow and winding and, as anywhere in Puerto Rica, careful driving is recommended and a good map. While there are many potholes, few road signs, and thin pavement, it is still easy to get around in a rental car. Locals are very friendly and always try to help with directions, but the major birding locales are well posted.

On top of the mountain ridge grow wind beaten elfin forests, where stunted trees reach no more than five feet into the moisture laden air. While the Elfin-woods Warbler can be one of the most difficult endemics to find, it took us less than two minutes to find a pair of these hyperactive birds as they darted in and out of view among dense foliage. The main visitor center here offers some of the best birding and near the parking lot I found a single feeding flock that contained half of Puerto Rico’s endemics. All that was left on the list was the Green Mango, one of three large hummingbirds found on the island. While the Antillean Mango and Green-throated Carib frequent coastal lowlands the endemic Green Mango is at home in the humid highlands. Eventually we resorted to staking out a patch of flowers, one of few around. After several Puerto Rican Emeralds, a gorgeous Green Mango made a brief appearance. With all the endemics on the list we headed back towards San Juan via several stops that explored the Taino Culture of the island.

Before flying home, a quick visit to the Cabeza de San Juan Reserve west east of San Juan near the town of Fajardo offered a peaceful beach plus the chance to see some North American migrants. Pearly-eyed Thrashers were common in the low shrubby vegetation here and Gray Kingbirds sallied from the top of mangroves. This is also one of the better spots to see the unforgettable Antillean Crested Hummingbird. We were lucky enough to see a male perch for a minute before buzzing down the trail.

The Yellow-shouldered Blackbird is an endangered endemic found in the southwest of the island, along with the endemic Puerto Rican Flycatcher (top). Wetlands in Puerto Rica still support good numbers of the vulnerable West Indian Whistling-Duck and coastal areas harbor the large Antillean Mango, here a female near Cabo Rojo. Photos Stephan Lorenz.

The Yellow-shouldered Blackbird is an endangered endemic found in the southwest of the island, along with the endemic Puerto Rican Flycatcher (top). Wetlands in Puerto Rica still support good numbers of the vulnerable West Indian Whistling-Duck and coastal areas harbor the large Antillean Mango, here a female near Cabo Rojo. Photos Stephan Lorenz.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: