Puerto Rico, the fourth-largest island in the Greater Antilles was a fascinating place to visit. Although a territory of the United States, I never spent much time thinking about what that would mean. I originally expected the infrastructure and socioeconomic well-being of its citizens to only be slightly better than some of the other countries we have traveled to, but it didn’t take long to realize that Puerto Rico is almost as technologically advanced and well off as any state in the US! Especially when coming from a country like Jamaica, you can see a world of difference between Puerto Rico and other countries in the Caribbean. Modern conveniences like Wal-Mart, Target and other chain stores and restaurants are abundant. The roads are maintained and the houses are well kept. But that being said, it has a rather ambiguous feel to it and at times I caught myself wondering if it was part of the US or its own country in the Caribbean.
We arrived at San Juan airport slightly behind schedule when our plane from Jamaica was late departing due to our pilots being stuck in another airport. We landed around 4AM, shuttled to pick up our rental car and were soon on our way to seeing one of Puerto Rico’s best success stories – the Puerto Rican Parrot. This critically endangered species was once on the brink of extinction when only 13 wild individuals remained. Thanks to robust conservation efforts and a successful captive breeding program, the population has rebounded to over 200 birds. This species comeback proves that even though we may not be able to save them all, it’s never too late to make a difference for some species before they are gone from this world forever.
We arrived at Rio Abajo State Forest just after first light, parked at the first blocked off gate, and walked the remainder of the distance to the second gate, just before the parrot rehabilitation center. This is the most reliable spot to see parrots that have been reintroduced into the wild. We stood outside the gate and soon heard a few individuals calling in the distance. We scanned the trees before finally seeing several Puerto Rican Parrots eating at the fruits of different trees overhead. Ross managed to get some excellent recordings of the noisy birds.
From Rio Abajo, we drove to Cartagena Laguna, the only natural fresh water body on Puerto Rico. The goal was to scan the open water in hopes of finding the Caribbean endemic, West Indian Whistling Duck. Unfortunately it was mid-day by the time we arrived, but typically West Indian Whistling Ducks are easiest to see early morning and early evening. We scanned the lake which produced large numbers of Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, American Wigeon, and White-cheeked Pintail, but no whistling ducks could be found. Our next stop was the small coastal town of La Parguera. This area is know for another very endangered species, the Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. There’s a local hardware store which feeds the birds on their property so we stopped there first but learned that they don’t feed the blackbirds until 3 PM (it was only 1 PM). Instead, we grabbed a quick lunch in town and began driving the streets searching for hummingbirds. The streets were lined with flowers, but we weren’t fortunate enough to find a single hummingbird. We did however find an entire flock of Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds feeding on some rice which saved us from having to go back to the hardware store.
We spent the rest of the day birding Guanica State Forest, a dry forest excellent for several Puerto Rican endemics, especially the endangered Puerto Rican Nightjar. We walked along PR 334 through the State Forest and had great looks at Adelaide’s Warbler, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, and Puerto Rican Tody. Ross managed to get superb recordings of each because, despite the bird activity, no other noise could be heard in the park. (Side note: all of Ross’s recordings can be found at www.xeno-canto.com/rossgallardy). From here, we made our way to PR 333 and birded the road waiting until after dark to try for Puerto Rican Nightjar. These nightjars were originally discovered in 1888, but went unseen for over 70 years and was thought to be extinct before being re-discovered in 1961.
We drove up and down the road from km 6.8 to km 8 and heard close to a dozen nightjars calling, but hearing them and seeing them are two very different things and Ross certainly wasn’t going to settle for just hearing the bird call. Before I knew it, we were off the road, up a dirt trail, and starting off that trail to make a trail of our own. The moon was bright and provided enough light for us to see without the use of flashlights, but the brush we were walking through was unrelenting, not to mention we were both exhausted. Ross who has been getting no more than 2-4 hours of sleep a night, didn’t want the lack of sleep to keep him from a life bird and he had decided we would stay out there as long as it would take. Thankfully, Ross is very proficient at this whole ‘birding’ thing and before long had a Puerto Rican Nightjar perched on a branch. Nightjars, when put in bright lights, are often stunned and you can walk up as close to them as you want – this was no exception. With the light pointed at the bird, we walked up to within a few meters to see it up close and personal. Definitely a highlight of the trip!
That night we attempted to do some camping at a park called Tres Hermanos that I read about online, but when we arrived we didn’t see any other tents in the area, nor did we see anything resembling a campground. There was a small taco shop at the entrance to the beach area and we asked a police officer who was eating there if we could camp in the area. He said yes and pointed us in the direction of a flat grassy area bordering the beach. We set up the tent, but after talking to the police officer again, he asked us why we were camping here because this was an unsafe area. With that knowledge, Ross wouldn’t be able to sleep and adamantly refused to camp there so we drove elsewhere and ended up car camping that night.
The next morning, March 13th, we woke up from our stay in a deserted Kmart parking lot and traveled up PR 120 to Bosque de Maricao. This area is known as the easiest and most reliable location for the endemic Elfin-woods Warbler. We had a beautiful morning walking alongside the road overlooking the valley below. While here we had great looks at an endemic hummingbird, the Green Mango. Other highlights from the area include Puerto Rican Tanager, including a displaying male, Peurto Rican Emerald, and a total of 5 of our target bird, Elfin-woods Warbler.
Ross had also heard about Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge being a good place for birds and since we only had a few targets left, we decided to head that way and visit the wildlife refuge. En route we noticed there was a lot of traffic, but never really thought too much about it until we were sitting for lunch and did a quick google search of other things to do in the area. Turns out that one of Puerto Rico’s “best beaches” is at the southwestern tip of the island – exactly where we were heading! Ross commented that we legitimately might be the only tourists to come to this area not knowing this beach was at the end of the road. Being that we had most of our target birds, we decided to spend a few hours basking in the sun, but it wasn’t a complete wash as we had an Antillean Mango sitting in the mangrove bushes on our walk out. We didn’t have our binoculars on us, but the bird let us get within only a few feet of him and never even flinched! I’ve never seen a hummingbird do that before! If we had had our camera, we easily could have had full frame high quality shots of this bird!
After lounging on the beach, we took a nice drive around some of the back roads through the NWR. Our main goal was to get better looks at Puerto Rican Flycatcher, and we definitely succeeded!
Our evening game plan was to return to Cartagena Laguna where over 60 whistling ducks were reported at dusk the week prior. Again we arrived and scanned the wetlands but never caught sight of the ducks we were after. Who knows where they all went!
We ended the night in search of our last Puerto Rican endemic, The Puerto Rican Screech Owl. The whole ordeal was reminiscent of my collegiate track days. I recall a certain workout at Pitt where we ran up and down the hill next to Phipps Conservatory on repeat. I’ll never forget how exhausted I felt during that workout and at several points I was sure that I was going to pass out from exhaustion, all the while my coach is yelling to run faster and not even think about giving up. While the whole ‘owl experience’ was not quite as brutal as that workout, it did require walking up and down the hill at the entrance of Guanica State Forest at least 5 or 6 times at the end of a long and tiring day. At one point I decided to lay in the middle of the road (after all I didn’t have my track coach yelling at me to run faster – I only had Ross who sort of was saying the same thing) and just as I did I saw the silhouette of our target bird fly through the sky. We still ended up walking the road several more times before really catching sight of our last endemic target bird, the Puerto Rican Screech Owl. He perched for a few minutes for a quick photo before flying off into the night.
With all of the endemics under our belts, we knew our last full day in Puerto Rico was going to be spent very leisurely, something we were both looking forward to.
The next morning we arrived at Humacao Reserve just as it opened and spent the first few hours of our morning walking the loop trail through the park. Perhaps hiking isn’t everyone’s form of “leisure” but it is our kind of fun and it was even better because there was no one else around, perhaps partly due to the fact that it was beginning to drizzle. We did get stuck in a downpour at one point but after that the skies cleared up and the sun came out. It was a very enjoyable morning walking through a palm tree forest and soon our hike opened up to a deserted beach! We were lucky to have the whole place to ourselves before walking back to our car and driving up the coast.
Not much else happened aside from eating a delicious Spanish lunch of burritos and freshly squeezed lemonade and setting up our tent at Balneario la Monserrate, less than a hundred yards from the beach. I’m sitting on a bench at the beach with my toes in the sand typing this while Ross takes a nap in the tent.
The sky is the perfect shade of blue and there’s a breeze in the air. The perfect last full day in Puerto Rico. Off to the Dominican Republic in the morning.