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Mothercare to Puerto Rico

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Old Sunday 27th April 2014, 08:27   #1
Larry Sweetland
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Mothercare to Puerto Rico

On May 4th we're going to Puerto Rico (hereafter called PR) and its satelite islet of Vieques for a couple of weeks, and as a fewrecent trip reports on here have started just before the event, I thought I'd join the club .

This will be my last birding trip before my 50th birthday, and although I got pretty close to my hoped for 5000 before 50 life-challenge, I'm still 84 short, so whatever happens on PR I won't make it. The nerdometer does however indicate I have 36 target birds in this department, and although they range from the 'pretty much impossible' to the 'even a 24-parsnip numpty can't fail to see it' categories, it looks like a pretty high proportion of them shouldn't be too much bovver. This is handy because....

This is also little Ronnie's first birding trip, and at 9 months he's not finding it that easy getting onto stuff. He has lately definitely been clocking some of the goodies at Eastville Park Lake though, and been swotting up on his coot id skills for the challenge ahead. According to his taxonomic system, Eurasian Coot are known as 'Ig' (along with various other objects that please him). I'm especially hoping for a family-bonding Caribbean Ig moment this month. Most importantly though, I'm keen to eradicate the worry that other toddlers will humiliate him if he gets to his first year without even haveing seen a single Tody species. This needs rectifying.

So we'll let you know how we got on when we get back.

Last edited by Larry Sweetland : Sunday 27th April 2014 at 17:09.
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Old Monday 28th April 2014, 10:37   #2
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I like the title.

Have a good trip,

Cheers
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Old Monday 28th April 2014, 14:47   #3
Larry Sweetland
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overview and hopes n dreams

thanks Gareth

For prep we bought BF's GMK's Birdwatcher's Guide, which covers all the Greater Antilles but still has a fair amount of site detail per country. I looked at a few trip reports and have so far settled on 4 to take with us, from between 2005 and 2012, by Niels Larsen, Martin Reid, Bill Brenner and Olaf Soltau. So massive thanks to all the above, other PR trip report writers, and all who have helped with my queries here on BF.

It appears to be 'standard' for birders to 'do' PR in less than a week. Most trip reports manage nearly all of the 18 endemics in this time, with the exception of the parrot, and maybe missing eg a view of one of the nocturnals, or an unexpexted miss eg the pewee or even in one report the flycatcher. Some species also seem to be 'skin of the teeth' for most reports, eg Green Mango. The parrot appears now to be effectively impossible, except by arrangement to where there is a re-introduction program. We may try ringing them when on the island and see if this is currently allowed/can fit in with our trip, the number's in Guy's book.

So the endemics are: PR Screech Owl, PR Nightjar, PR Lizard Cuckoo, PR Parrot, Green Mango, PR Emerald, PR Tody, PR Woodpecker, PR Flycatcher, PR Pewee, Elfin Woods Warbler, Adelaide's Warbler, PR Vireo, PR Tanager, PR Spindalis, PR Bullfinch, Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, PR Oriole.

Being a small island, the diversity's not that great, but includes a fair few new ones for me in the forms of: West Indian Whistling Duck, Caribbean Coot, Yellow-breasted Crake, Plain Pigeon, Bridled Quail Dove, Antillean Nighthawk, Black Swift, Antillean Mango, Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib, Gray Kingbird, Antillean Elaenia, Caribbean Martin, Cave Swallow, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Black-whiskered Vireo, Antillean Euphonia, and Black-faced Grassquit.

some of those though are very difficult, most notably Yellow-breasted Crake (which Bill Brenner jammed), Black Swift (which Niels saw!), and Bridled Quail Dove (Vieques only).

So although we're going for twice as long as most 'standard' trips, I'm hoping to manage around 30 of the above, given we'll be doing it with a baby and doing some snorkelling. Who knows, this trip might finally make me grow up and not really give a toss about missing a whole load of 'em if we do.

there are also some other great birds we hope to see including White-tailed Tropicbird, White-cheeked Pintail, American Purple Gallinule, Ruddy, and Key West Quail Doves, Mangrove Cuckoo, Loggerhead Kingbird, Red-legged Thrush, Greater Antillean Grackle, Shiny Cowbird, Bananaquit Yellow-faced Grassquit etc.

Last edited by Larry Sweetland : Monday 28th April 2014 at 14:57.
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Old Monday 28th April 2014, 15:32   #4
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Good luck and don't forget to keep the list for your son as well. I guess for the next 10 years or so, his list will be longer than he is able to count.
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Old Monday 28th April 2014, 16:43   #5
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Good luck and don't forget to keep the list for your son as well. I guess for the next 10 years or so, his list will be longer than he is able to count.
Having him wanting to keep a list for himself @10 should be a sufficient goal in itself! Anyway if he ends up serious about a list (and with Larry's input odds on) but by 15 no doubt won't trust the old man's data anyway :-)

All in jest; of course you need to keep his list! My son is 8 yrs old and now happily takes a printed check list on holiday and mostly initiates an end of day checking them off himself (maybe with a little help on occasions :-))
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Old Monday 28th April 2014, 18:22   #6
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All in jest; of course you need to keep his list! My son is 8 yrs old and now happily takes a printed check list on holiday and mostly initiates an end of day checking them off himself (maybe with a little help on occasions :-))
My 6 year old is more likely to do this than my 8 year old. Having said both of them are doing very nicely, so we can't complain!

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Old Monday 28th April 2014, 20:02   #7
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Ha! Glad I dropped in on this. In the past week or so my 6 & 4 year olds have started to take quite an interest (particularly the eldest, who was very pleased to tick off Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe & Chaffinch today). Not sure what their first overseas birding experience will be, but I doubt our pockets will stretch to anything transatlantic!

Good luck Larry, I'll be following with much interest.

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Old Tuesday 29th April 2014, 07:31   #8
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Having him wanting to keep a list for himself @10 should be a sufficient goal in itself!
Yes, that's where I am now with my 9 year old

This month I did a rainforest initation with him (Cuc Phuong NP in Vietnam) and he liked it. I had to restrain my urge to stalk Pittas for hours a bit, but it was easy to keep it interesting for him. Golden bugs, a civet in the spotlight, gruesome leaches, bats in caves, plenty of amazing things to see for a boy.
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Old Tuesday 29th April 2014, 15:13   #9
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Yes, that's where I am now with my 9 year old

This month I did a rainforest initation with him (Cuc Phuong NP in Vietnam) and he liked it. I had to restrain my urge to stalk Pittas for hours a bit, but it was easy to keep it interesting for him. Golden bugs, a civet in the spotlight, gruesome leaches, bats in caves, plenty of amazing things to see for a boy.
Florian,

Vietnam is special for many reasons but with my son then just shy of 7 in a very wet Nam Cat Tien seeing multiple pairs of displaying Blue-winged Pittas (mid June and hence the rainy season) now means Pitta is a magic word for him. Bugs, mammals, fish especially, all great but leaches still not acceptable, but mention of the word Pitta works magic and he's since seen a pair of Elegant, a pair of Azure-breasted and a Hooded! Mention of the possibility when on holiday or here in Singapore will have him demanding stalking of the jungle. Now to make LBJ's as fun...
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Old Tuesday 29th April 2014, 15:48   #10
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my son then just shy of 7 in a very wet Nam Cat Tien seeing multiple pairs of displaying Blue-winged Pittas (mid June and hence the rainy season) now means Pitta is a magic word for him.

Blue-winged Pitta in Cat Tien was my first pitta as well, and it had exactly the same effect on me. Pittas are pure magic, whether you're 7 years old or 35, as I was then. Next visit to Vietnam, I'll drag the whole family to Cat Tien.
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Old Tuesday 29th April 2014, 19:14   #11
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Hi Larry and Nicky sending you a little shout out from your sofa in Bristol, my 4 year old got onto a Honey Buzzard at Exminster Marshes yesterday,getting him trained up,watch out he,s 4956 behind you!X
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Old Wednesday 30th April 2014, 10:11   #12
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Blimey, leave a thread on here for 5 minutes and before you know it there's Honey Buzzards drifting in, a fair range of bounding boinging pittas all over the carpet, and giant children that can walk around and everything. Come on guys, this is a neotropical thread with a baby, what's a pitta? What's a toddler? There aren't even any antpittas on Puerto Rico
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Old Wednesday 30th April 2014, 14:46   #13
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It's all about giving you some tiny ideas of what lies ahead of you
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Old Wednesday 21st May 2014, 12:55   #14
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First morning before breakfast

Just got back today, and what an amazing place . Exceeded our expectations, and I'd thoroughly recommend it as a birding destination for a family with a baby. The only negatives are that it's expensive, and the traffic can be full-on if you catch it wrong.

We set off from home in Bristol at 5am on May 4th, and 12 hours later landed in San Juan, which was 7pm there and just turned dark. We'd pre-booked a rental car through Avis (public transport is very limited on PR and taxis very expensive), and picked it up at their airport office. We had no idea how the journey would be with Ronnie, and were nervous about driving knackered after arriving, in a busy city, on the wrong side of the road, in a wrong-way-round car, with no clutch pedal , so decided our first place to stay would be fairly near San Juan.

Nicky pre-booked a self catering place via the Air B+B website, on the east coast near Humacao for us to settle in. It was Bonnie and Tony's on Rt 3 in the town of Punta Santiago. This served as a great base to explore the east of the island, and we stayed there for four nights. We had the whole upper floor of the house, complete with hammocked large open balcony area. The house was situated in a small but very leafy garden, a couple of minutes walk from the sea and shops.

When I woke the next morning to unfamiliar bird sounds I wasn't too enthusiastic at first, but stumbled out onto the balcony with me bins, mostly with expectations of perhaps seeing a handful of introduced birds. The first thing I saw was a dove-shaped blob on a wire, then something really weird flew past my face and landed on a branch in a tree in the garden. Wow, so that's a Pearly-eyed Thrasher then. From then on I was hooked.

Next up were two characterful birds that were to appear pretty much everywhere throughout the trip: Greater Antillean Grackle and Gray Kingbird. I'm missing them already as I type. Common Ground Doves and White-winged Doves quickly popped up, swiftly followed by some birds that meant I had to seriously wake up just to get onto them! Hummingbirds. These turned out to be constant visitors to the garden, and as ever it took a while to make sense of them before getting great looks, and discovering that both Green-throated Carib and Antillean Crested Hummingbird were there, and perhaps surprisingly it was the carib that was the more numerous in this garden. Seeing them well is one thing, but getting a good pic is something else, and this was harder than ever for Nicky with Ronnie on the scene. We'll post some 'record shots' later.

Meanwhile other stuff kept appearing in and over the garden. Black-faced Grassquit, Scaly-naped Pigeon, the first couple of intros: House Sparrow and feral Rock Dove, then our first PR endemics: PR Spindalis and PR Woodpecker. A couple of Cabot's Terns and Cattle Egrets flew over the house, and then it really was time to nip out to the shops to get some breakfast. A short walk down the street and bang there was a Magnificent Frigatebird low overhead. This turned out to be a common (but never boring!) sight all over the coastal lowlands. On the way back armed with bread and eggs, a Pin-tailed Whydah looked a bit out of place, and I bumped into a Northern Mockingbird, a Bananaquit and a couple of Zenaida Doves. Then we had breakfast on the balcony.

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Old Wednesday 21st May 2014, 21:37   #15
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So far, so good, Larry. Looking forward to hearing more!

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Old Thursday 22nd May 2014, 08:14   #16
Larry Sweetland
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After Breakfat

Thanks Steve, not much time to type it up now as off to a festival for the weekend in a couple of hours. But here's the next bit.

….After breafast we took a stroll down to the beach. A lovely Killdeer was wandering about on a grassy patch at the top of the beach, where we also flushed a richly coloured Green Heron from a small ditch, which landed on a nearby fence with crest and neck feathers bristling. Some huge Brown Pelicans lumbered low over, and a single Semi-palmated Plover was on the shore-line. I was keen to hear it call, and pleased that it did as it took off and went on it's way. A little further along the beach two Ruddy Turnstones were in especially handsome breeding plumage in the intense sunshine. There was also a colony of Great Egrets in the wooded scrub near the sea. It's proably best to carry your baby in a backpack here, as we discovered that you quickly get bogged in the sand in your pram.

On the way back to the main road we saw the trip's first Shiny Cowbird, and then our first big surprise of the day. A hummingbird feeding in a tree alongside Rt 3, pretty much opposite where we were staying, was clearly different to the two expected species that we'd seen so far. A bird the size of the carib with a similar long heavy decurved bill, but with pale underparts and pale tips to the tail feathers. This turned out to be a female Antillean Mango, which promptly sat on it's nest in te roadside tree, and remained for Nicky to get some pics. This was a great bonus for the first morning, as it was one of the birds that I'd filed in the 'should see it but could possibly miss it if we're unlucky' category. The surprise here was that I'd expected to unluckily possibly miss it in the dry southwest of the island and not here, where I wasn't aware that it occurred.

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Old Thursday 22nd May 2014, 08:28   #17
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Ig ! Ig !
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Old Thursday 22nd May 2014, 11:12   #18
Larry Sweetland
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up to siesta

an Igfest to come in a bit Frogfish !

In the morning there had been a few hirundines seen from the balcony, but a bit too distantly to be identified. The walk to the beach finally produced a great view of my first Cave Swallow, as it wound it's way over and throgh the beach-side palm tops. On returning to our balcony I set up the scope, and periodically scanned inland over the lunch and siesta period, mostly hoping to pick up my other 'wanted' hirundine against the cloud-topped backdrop of the forested slopes of El Yunque to the west.

This vigil produced a Laughing Gull, a couple of Red-tailed Hawks, a Western Osprey a party of another introduced African bird, Bronze Mannikin, and a smattering of distant hirundines. Eventually a familiar-sounding call made me look up with a start, and there low overhead was a superb male Caribbean Martin, knocking out that classsic Progne sound that I remember used to remind me of spaceship gunfire on primitive video games, when I first heard Purple Martins. My scanning also produced the second big surprise of the day when I locked on to what was inescapably a reasonably swift-shaped swift, that round here must be a Black Swift. I'd filed Black Swift under the 'more likely to miss it than see it' category, but where I figured I'd be most likely missing it was way up in the mountains that were forming the backdrop to it. Not the best of views however, and I very much hoped we'd get a better look at this species on our planned trip up to El Yunque.
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Old Thursday 22nd May 2014, 12:35   #19
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in search if Ig

Mid afternoon we decided to head off, via some shopping in the town of Humacao, to do some birding at Humacao nature reserve. Here we were hoping to put Ronnie's Ig ID skills to the test. Before visiting the regular site near the visitor's centre, we checked out a less visited area on the inland side of Rt 3. Here there is an area of swamp mentioned in a couple of trip reports, where if you're lucky you might score one of the world's most miniscule crakes, Yellow-breasted Crake. This spot isn't mentioned in the Birdwatcher's Guide book. To find this site continue on Rt 3 in the direction of Humacao from the main reserve entrance, and in about less than 1km, where the road takes a sharp bend to the left, take the sealed road on the right (heading inland). After a couple of km the right hand side of the road opens out into marshy land, and there is an old sign on the right that says 'Unitad Mandri' by a locked gate. Park here and walk the track behind the gate into this area.
During our visit the area was generally pretty dry and overgrown with tall vegetation, with only a couple of fairly small pools. It was hard to imagine coot being here, as seen in trip reports, and I couldn't see any of the flooded short grass and sedge type habitat that I believe is best for the crake. It wasn't looking good, either for a good old fashioned wet-footed stomp about, or anywhere obvious for a dusk stake out. It was still pretty hot, but although I'd pretty much written off any chance of the crake, we walked the track for a while (quite good for the pushchair), and picked up some good birds.

There were a fair few Common Gallinules out there, some Black-necked Stilts, a Semi-palmated Plover, 2 Solitary Sandpipers, a Spotted Sandpiper, 2 pairs of White-cheeked Pintail, Tricolored Herons, Green Herons, Snowy, Great and Cattle Egrets, a few Glossy Ibis. There were several displaying Black-faced Grassquits in the taller grasses, and a couple of parties of introduced Orange-cheeked Waxbills passed by. We certainly didn't really give the area as good a go as it deserved, but figured it was time to head back to Rt 3 and look for our 2 more realistic target birds on the main part of the reserve.

As described in the book and reports, there is a track that runs parallel to the creek next to the HQ that you can walk along when the reserve is closed in the evening. This takes you over a bridge, then take next right to get onto a track the runs along the edge of a long large lake edged with mangroves which is good for water birds. You'll find it's easy to wheel your baby along in a pushchair. We walked for a few hundred metres along the track but found the best viewing area was from the pontoon near the beginning of the lake.

We first picked up a couple of White-cheeked Pintail, then a Pied-billed Grebe, and shortly afterwards the first of a dozen or so Ig that we saw on the lake. A scope was handy here to check them out, and it seemed that most looked as I imagined a classic Caribbean Ig would look, though one or two had much reduced frontal shields, and looked most like American Ig, and I suspect they were hybirds. We think Ronnie got onto one of them, and he did actually flap has arms about excitedly and said ”Ig Ig” for the first time that day. I think the finer points of specific Ig ID may be beyond him still at this stage. As they probably are me. Ig are generally much maligned and scoffed at in many birding circles, even vagrant ones, but I quite like them, and hope to one day see the last couple I've not yet seen (Hawaiian and Horned). To anyone who mocketh the mighty Ig, I would invite to sing, upon seeing an Ig out of water, to the tune of Toot Sweet from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:- “Coots' Feet, Coots' Feet, there's nothing as cute as the Fooot of a Coot” and repeat.

This spot also produced a few Ruddy Duck, 2 Little Blue Herons, Tricolored Heron, Common Gallinules, PR Woodpecker, 3 Spotted Sandpipers and several Scaly-naped Pigeon. It was as dusk approached that things got a bit more nail biting, as I awaited a bird I really didn't want to miss here, as I'd previously failed to see it on a trip to Cuba 18 years ago. West Indian Whistling Duck. It felt like a great end to an unexpectedly good first day, when a group of 3 West Indian Whistling Ducks were spotted sneaking round the edge of the mangroves on the other side of the lake. As the light gradually dulled, 2 more flew out over the lake, to be joined by another pair, and then the original 3, to form a slowly wheeling party of 7 birds. They landed in the middle of the lake to be scoped, but by now Ronnie was getting a bit bored, and we trundled happily off back to the car, with 13 lifers already in the bag.

Last edited by Larry Sweetland : Thursday 22nd May 2014 at 12:54.
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Old Thursday 22nd May 2014, 15:24   #20
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I personally think that you will loose the Caribbean Coot from your life list eventually, they are just too willing to mix up with the Am version to be called two different biological species. I have seen mixed-looking individuals all the way down to Antigua.

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Old Thursday 22nd May 2014, 18:36   #21
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Wow, Larry, looks like DMM and I really needed to get to that Humuaco Nature Reserve while we where there; I think you got about five different "wetland"-types in one morning that we didn't see all week! And we were staying all of twenty minutes away....

This is perhaps the first time I've every seen the words "lovely" and "Killdeer" in the same sentence - all part of perspective, I know.
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Old Monday 26th May 2014, 19:02   #22
Larry Sweetland
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thanks for the comments Niels and Peter.

here's some pics.

1. Antillean Crested Hummingbird, 2. Antillean Mango, 3. Green-throated Carib, 4. Pearly-eyed Thrasher, 5. Ruddy Turnstone
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Old Monday 26th May 2014, 21:08   #23
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Next day we had a leisurely breakfast before setting off from Tony and Bonnie's, and headed for El Yunque, the most well known of PR's protected areas of montane forest.

Although most (maybe all) of the PR montane endemics can be found at El Yunque, it looks from trip reports that they're mostly easier to see around Maricau in the west of the island. I hoped to have my first taste of some of these endemics at El Yunque, but my main target bird for this morning was better views of the more globally widespread Black Swift.

We cruised up the coast road, stopping to look at some Brown Pelicans and a lone Royal Tern, before heading for El Yunque's northern approach. The journey through the lowlands picked up (of note) a smattering of Cave Swallows in small groups, mostly by low bridges, and the occasional Caribbean Martin.

We then wound up into the hills, and stopped by an information board just past the main reserve HQ. We were now in the forest, and although it was pretty quiet I'd no sooner stepped out of the car when a movement caught my eye, and I found myself staring at one of PR's special birds. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing not to like about a PR Tody. Neat dazzling little things, no bigger than Blue Tits, but looking like a cross between a kingfisher and a jacamar. Great to watch as they dart about catching things, but easy to follow and get prolonged close looks at as they stare back at you. Although we only saw one that day, we were to discover that they're one of the commoner PR endemics, adding a bit of glitz to most of our woodland walks during our holiday.

While we were still admiring our tody, another unfamiliar call led us to a pair of PR Tanagers passing through. A modest critter by tanager standards, but quite unique nonetheless. I hoped this was to be the start of a small bird wave, but all fell silent as the tanagers parted. We got back in the car and pressed on into the park, stopping at Coca Falls lookout, where the 2 endemic PR hummingbirds are sometimes seen. There were very few flowers, a fair few tourists, and no sign of any birds except Bananaquits, and flyover White-winged Doves and Scaly-naped Pigeons.

We pressed on to Yokahu lookout, which is mentioned in the Birdwatcher's Guide as a good spot to see Black Swift from mid April. I was gutted to discover that the area to park here was closed (temporarily?). We continued up the hill and saw there was a 'window' in the forest on the left side of the road within a short distance, and a place to pull over soon after, also on the left. We stopped, and walked back down the road until we reached the 'window' from where we could scan over an extensive area of forest below. This was not only quite an impressive view, but I'd not been there 5 minutes before 2 Black Swifts appeared in the 'window', providing much closer views than the previous day, viewable both against the sky and the trees. A fair few distant pigeons and a couple of Red-tailed Hawks were also seen.

We explored further into the park for a couple of hours but saw very little except Bananaquits, Pearly-eyed Thrashers and a couple of unidentified hummingbirds chasing each other across the road at the speed of light. A loud clear song eventually led us to great views of another of the commoner PR endemics, a smart male PR Bullfinch, before we decided it was time to continue with our plan to head for the beach at Cabezas de San Juan, for some swimming and snorkelling. We saw little here birdwise except a few really smart (sorry Peter! ) adult Laughing Gulls in breeding plumage, and quite a large gang of Pin-tailed Whydahs. The snorkelling was disappointing here, but the sea nice and warm.

As it got later it was time to go chasing after my other remaining target bird for the east end of the island, Plain Pigeon. This is where we learned to have a bit more respect for the distances around here! We totally misguaged how long it would take to get to the Plain Pigeon site at Comeria. We only had a very small and basic map from the car hire place, and we ended up going the wrong way on a highway with no options to turn back for ages (and going through a toll!). When we could finally turn round we hit a traffic jam. At Caguas we realised we were too late, so we made sure we plotted a route back to Humacao where the roads flowed in both directions, to ensure that when we returned for another go tomorrow, we could at least get through Caguas to the road to Aguas Buenas (and on to the pigeon site), without getting lost.

Last edited by Larry Sweetland : Monday 26th May 2014 at 21:21.
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Old Monday 26th May 2014, 21:41   #24
JWN Andrewes
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Enjoying the read Larry. That Thrasher's a bit of a brute though, what?

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Old Tuesday 27th May 2014, 00:28   #25
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Very apropos: Pearly-eyed Thrasher is normally a quite "wild" species. The only place I know of where it has ever had a nest under a roof was the visitor center of El Yunque. Usually, it is more likely to try to steal a nest from a PR Parrot or another hole-nesting species, and as such is one of the threats to the parrot.

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