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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Puerto Rico

2024 Narrative

Day 1: We enjoyed a tasty welcome dinner at Campo Verde Latin Cuisine, the Airport Hotel’s restaurant, before turning in for an early evening.

Day 2: We left the hotel dark and early, making our way westward along the north shore of the island. As we arrived the dawn chorus was in full swing, the air filled with the sounds of Bananaquits, the cardinal-sounding Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Black-whiskered Vireo, Puerto Rican Woodpecker, Red-legged Thrushes, and the dawn calls of Gray Kingbirds. Not long after unloading from the van, and before I could even get the scope up we were welcomed by the raucous calls of one of Puerto Rico’s rarest residents, the Puerto Rican Parrot. A short ways into the old picnic area we watched a group of seven parrots feeding on the seeds of the towering Teak Trees. Teak is an Old World tree species that I’ve rarely seen being utilized by any New World taxa so this was a fun observation.

In between parrot views we watched a family of Puerto Rican Orioles carrying food to their nestlings. A Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo sat out in the morning sunshine providing the best view all trip. Up the trail we followed a Puerto Rican Tody through the tangled vegetation and searched for a calling Quail-Dove with no luck.

As we returned to the van two Puerto Rican Broad-winged Hawks circled briefly overhead. After a quick bathroom stop and a few roadside birds we arrived at Cambalache State Forest for a short walk and a picnic. We enjoyed eye level views of Adelaide’s Warbler  at the trailhead while up the trail we had crushing views of four Puerto Rican Flycatchers chasing each other about the trees.

Over lunch we enjoyed brilliant views of a Green Mango feeding from a hibiscus flower and a mixed flock of migratory wood-warblers including Northern Parula, Black-and-white, Magnolia, and Prairie warblers. After lunch we drove to Mirador Guajataca with a brief stop at a small roadside pond where we saw Blue-winged Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, Glossy Ibis and others. At Guajataca overlook we watched six White-tailed Tropicbirds doing aerial flight displays over the ocean.

In the afternoon we made our way through the western mountains to the town of Maricao, and then on to Hacienda Juanita, our lovely accommodation situated on a coffee plantation, for the next two nights. After dinner we spent about thirty minutes listening to and enjoying gorgeous, though partly obscured, looks at a Puerto Rican Owl.

Day 3: We rose early and enjoyed a sunrise bird walk through the forests surrounding Hacienda Juanita where we enjoyed our first encounter with the Puerto Rican Tanager, a monotypic family (Nesospingidae) found nowhere else in the world than the highlands of Puerto Rico. After breakfast we made our first prolonged birding stop near the ranger station in the Maricao State Forest, home of the Elfin-woods Warbler, a species described to science in 1976. Shortly after getting out of the vehicle we heard our first Elfin-woods Warblers but they were far enough downslope that we couldn’t get any views. In the meantime we enjoyed close views of a pair of Puerto Rican Spindalis and a male Puerto Rican Bullfinch.

After a short walk and some great views of Puerto Rican Euphonias (above) we returned to the parking area to find a male Elfin-woods Warbler  flitting about at eye-level. Near our picnic site we watched a male Puerto Rican Emerald feeding on a patch of flowers.

After lunch we returned to Hacienda Juanita for a short siesta and a swim in the pool. Post-break we walked the trail to Cascada Juanita, a small waterfall downslope from our hotel. Along the trail we encountered a female Elfin-woods Warbler as well as more Puerto Rican Tanagers and a very cooperative Puerto Rican Kingbird.

As the sun set we ate dinner and enjoyed the Venezuelan Troupials and a Puerto Rican Mango feeding on the giant blooming Pseudobombax tree in the courtyard.

Day 4: We rose early for a pre-dawn departure to the town of Sabana Grande where we had a delicious breakfast and some coffee at a local panaderia. From here we were a short drive from our morning destination, Susua State Forest, a lovely oasis nestled in a canyon surrounded by dry forest. Within moments of leaving the vehicle we could hear multiple Key West Quail-Doves singing around us. This species is probably more reliable here than any other single site in the Caribbean - the real trick is seeing one. After chatting with the local park attendant who wanted to be sure we had seen the Puerto Rican Tody, we started down a narrow forest trail in the general direction of a singing Quail-Dove. No more than five minutes had passed before, to our surprise, a Key West Quail-Dove flew in and landed mere feet overhead of the group . We watched in amazement before it realized it had landed right above a bunch of drooling birders and retreated back into the forest. Raymond found a path through the brush and managed to refind the bird, putting it in a scope for everyone to enjoy at their leisure. We watched it sing and preen off and on for the next 15 mins before we eventually left, leaving it singing on the branch where we found it. A wander around the picnic ground produced a number of Puerto Rican Mangos, a few small flocks of White-winged Parakeets, and our only Puerto Rican Pewee of the trip.

With our Hispaniolan Pewee in the bag, and the best Quail-Dove views imaginable, we were on our way toward the coast where we stopped at a non-operational salt farm to enjoy some shorebirds. A load of “Caribbean” Clapper Rails crept through the nearby mangroves, calling frequently, and the sounds of Greater and Lesser yellowlegs rang through the hot, heavy air. In the salt pans we found a Semipalmated Plover and a pair of Killdeers guarding a nest. Along the drive toward Parguera we found a shallow lagoon loaded with Black-necked Stilts and a few Stilt Sandpipers .

In Parguera we enjoyed a picnic while waited for Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds to come into the general store for their afternoon feeding. We were a bit early so we mostly enjoyed watching the local chickens battle over the picnic scraps - someone decided throwing popcorn at them was a good idea. Honestly it was quite amusing. During lunch we had a fly-over Yellow-shouldered Blackbird and a small flock of Caribbean Martins. With it being just a little early to check-in we made a drive around Rice Tech where we encountered many of the island’s introduced species: Scaly-breasted Munia, Orange-cheeked Waxbill, and Northern Red Bishop. A Merlin was perched near the rice fields awaiting its next meal and it allowed for a close approach.

After checking in at the lovely Turtle Bay Inn we took a short break and then headed to Laguna Cartagena for some birding at sunset. We quickly added multiple new birds to the trip lists including: Sora, Purple Gallinule, Limpkin, Least Bittern, and Common Yellowthroat. A Striated Heron (very rare in Puerto Rico) had been spending time at the lagoon for the last couple of weeks and we were able to locate it, along with at least 10 Masked Ducks tucked away in the nearby aquatic vegetation . As a bonus, after much work, we were able to get everyone nice views of the tiny and secretive Yellow-breasted Crake as it crept through the tall grasses along the edge of the wetland.

From here we headed for dinner and then on to the red light district (if you know you know), a nearby hotspot for the endemic Puerto Rican Nightjar. It wasn’t long before we could hear one singing nearby, Raymond quickly located it through a narrow window in the vegetation  giving nice views for all. It was a long day but the nightjar represented the last of the Puerto Rican endemics for the trip - high fives and happiness all around (and this was only day 3 of birding).

Day 5: With a long few days behind us the morning bird walk was optional, though nearly everybody showed up, and with smiling faces. We made a trip up to Rice Tech to look for the Blue Grosbeak  that had been hanging around and were successful in our morning endeavor, finding not one, but two individuals in a stand of tall grasses on the agricultural complex.

We circled back to the hotel and enjoyed a delicious hot breakfast before heading out for the rest of the morning. Near the town of Boqueron we stopped at a neighborhood pond where we enjoyed a large flock of the endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds at a nearby feeding station .

The neighborhood pond contained about 675 White-cheeked Pintails  and over 500 Stilt Sandpipers. We enjoyed watching a “White-shielded” American Coot building a nest.

We made a stop at the Cabo Rojo lighthouse where we enjoyed scenic views of the ocean, watched a couple of Brown Boobies bobbing in the surf, and followed a pair of Caribbean Elaenias as they chased each other through the mangrove trees. After lunch and one more look at Laguna Cartagena we took a well deserved break in the afternoon. After dinner we went out searching for the “Caribbean” Short-eared Owl, and boy were we lucky! Not long after arriving at the agricultural complex Raymond spotted an owl in a distant field and maneuvered the vehicle lights to illuminate the bird. It seemed unphased so we set-up the scope and watched in amazement as the bird walked around in the barren field in search of its next meal. As we were watching the bird on the edges of the beam it picked up and flew to within about 50 feet of us, allowing for even better views. Another individual barked nearby.

After everyone was satisfied we headed back to the Turtle Bay Inn for a good night’s rest.

Day 6: Just like that we were gearing up for our final day of birding. We had breakfast and said goodbye to Turtle Bay Inn. We pointed our van east and headed along the coast to a well known fried chicken joint that hosts reliable Antillean Crested Hummingbirds in the flowering shrubs across the road. We waited for about 15 minutes before our first and only sighting of this lovely little hummingbird. We enjoyed views for the better part of 20 minutes as up to 3 fed meticulously at each flower, poking their short bills into the base of the flower rather than burying their heads deep in the bloom, a behavior known as nectar robbing, as it doesn’t typically promote pollination.

To our surprise there was another hummingbird in attendance, a Green-throated Carib, which also hung around for many minutes.

From here we checked a nearby beach and found up to 29 Wilson’s Plover, a bird that seems to be on the decline globally. After lunch at El Meson we ditched the coast and headed for the Central Mountains to a small community where Plain Pigeon can sometimes be found.  We arrived in the heat of the day and despite much searching by ourselves and other birders in the area we were unsuccessful in our attempts at locating this scare species. Crossing San Juan is always an adventure, but we missed the bulk of rush hour and made it without any struggle to our hotel for our goodbye dinner where we shared our favorite moments of the tour, and laughed a lot. After hugs all around we said our goodbyes. Caribbean life has a way of getting into your soul and we all left feeling grateful for our little chunk of time in the Caribbean sun, with friends, new and old, celebrating fabulous and unique bird life.

                                                                                                                                                              -          Raymond VanBuskirk

Created: 07 March 2024