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Puerto Rico, March 2022 (1 Viewer)

ovenbird43

Well-known member
Just back from an 8-day spring trip to Puerto Rico, which included several days on Vieques for Bridled Quail-Dove and snorkeling. I chose Puerto Rico in large part due to circumstance - I had some airline credit from flights canceled back in spring 2020 due to COVID, but I could only use them for domestic flights (original plan for this spring was Oaxaca). Puerto Rico made a great alternative, technically a domestic flight from the mainland US (also avoiding the need for any covid tests) but still providing an international experience in the tropics, with island endemics plus a few regional endemics on offer.

I was accompanied by my husband and arranged the following itinerary:
Mar 13: Arrive San Juan in the evening, pick up rental car, overnight in nearby apartment found on booking.com
Mar 14: Drive to SW part of the island, birding stops to be decided that day, overnight in AirBNB Lake House
Mar 15: Birding Cabo Rojo and La Parguera especially for Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, evening birding a La Guanica for nightjar and owl
Mar 16: Birding at Maricao for Elfin-woods Warbler, PR Tanager, etc., evening at Laguna Cartagena
Mar 17: AM originally unplanned but ended up running to Rio Abajo to try for the parrot - afternoon transfer to Ceiba for ferry to Vieques, overnight AirBNB
Mar 18: pick up rental golf cart, general birding and snorkeling
Mar 19: Monte Pirata area for Bridled Quail-Dove, afternoon snorkeling
Mar 20: birding (ended up targeting Antillean Crested Hummingbird)/snorkeling, pm tour of the bioluminescent bay
Mar 21: travel back to San Juan
Mar 22: flight home

I was happy with how the itinerary worked out, days on the mainland were busy but I got all endemics except the parrot, the days on Vieques were more relaxed and gave us time enjoy additional activities such as snorkeling, biking, and the bio bay tour. I will say that taking the ferry from Ceiba is not the most efficient use of time compared to taking flights and would not recommend it for shorter trips - plus flying can end up slightly cheaper if you are traveling solo and are able to find good fares. The ferry itself is cheap ($2) but requires a $100 taxi ride from San Juan, not to mention the time expense of a 1-hour taxi ride, getting to the ferry dock and waiting around, and then about 45 minutes of actual ferry ride. For two people on the same budget and with plenty of time, it was fine, and cheaper than buying two round-trip plane tickets, but even then in retrospect it would have been nice to just spring for plane tickets at least going one way.

More to come
 

ovenbird43

Well-known member
March 13

This was a long travel day - it's not really that far from the Gulf Coast to anywhere in the Caribbean, but getting reasonably-priced flights when I purchased them only a month ago resulted in a flight out from New Orleans (1.5 hour drive from home, vs. Gulfport at 30 min) and an 8-hour layover in Miami. And with daylight savings time occurring the same day, I'm still not really sure what time we got up and left, but it was brutally early. We arrived at the newly-renovated New Orleans airport at something like 5:00 am to find a muuuuuch longer security line than I'd ever seen at this previously quiet airport, so we ended up being the last to board our flight to Miami at 6:30, and we were taxiing just moments after strapping on our seatbelts. Whew.

With such a long layover in Miami, I decide to take an Uber out for some birding, while my husband opted to stay in the airport and read. No particular targets, just wanted to get out for some birding, though I thought getting Spot-breasted Oriole (first in many years) would be nice. So I booked an Uber to Brewer Park, about 20 minutes from the airport (glancing with discomfort at the security line to get back in...). This was a very small park along a canal in South Miami, and though I didn't catch up with Spot-breasted Oriole, a displaying European Starling sure faked me out with oriole-like calls a few times. However, a pair of courting and calling Swallow-tailed Kites were a real treat, and I had to enjoy the pair of Chestnut-fronted Macaws investigating a potential nest hole in the invasive Australian pines.

After a bit I booked another Uber to nearby A. D. Barnes park, which I recalled from my short stint living in Miami as a good migration hotspot within the city. Sure enough, after a bit of searching I came across a small flock with Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, Pine Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Prairie Warbler, plus Ovenbird nearby. Nothing too unusual but much nicer than sitting in the airport. However, I returned to the airport with several hours to spare, not wanting to repeat this morning's close call. No issues, we boarded our evening flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico without hassle, and I enjoyed a window seat with views of the Bahama islands until it got too dark to see. We landed in Puerto Rico, picked up our rental car from NU car, and soon arrived at our apartment rental just a 10 minute drive away, stopping briefly at a gas station on the way for drinks (guanabana IPA!!) and snacks.
 

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ovenbird43

Well-known member
March 14

The main objective of this day was just to get to the SW part of the island, though I had a number of loose birding ideas along the way. As typical, I woke up before Tom was ready to go, so I made some coffee and then headed out for a walk around the neighborhood. Zenaida Doves, Bananaquit, and Greater Antillean Grackle were quite conspicuous, as were Eurasian Collared-Dove and White-winged Dove. Not far from the apartment I encountered my first lifer, a Green-throated Carib visiting a small flowering tree right in the neighborhood. A good hour's walk from where we were staying didn't provide much else other than flyover Monk and White-winged Parakeets.

Following the general advice of a friend to do some birding around the wetter environments of San Juan before focusing on the southwest, when we left our apartment our first stop was at the University of Puerto Rico Botanical Gardens. We used Google Maps to find our way, but that turned into a navigational puzzle when one of the roads we intended to turn down was abruptly closed due to a building fire. But we eventually made it, and were surprised to learn there was no entrance fee. After checking in, we walked around the trails and roads. It wasn't a very birdy spot, although I did see my first Pearly-eyed Thrasher, plus another Green-throated Carib. Most importantly though, toward the end of our circuit we encountered a Puerto Rican Oriole, attended by a Shiny Cowbird. This oriole would be the only one we encountered the whole time, so well worth the stop!

We continued on, heading south along the main highway and stopping for lunch at a seafood restaurant along the south coast, where we watched Magnificent Frigatebirds and Caribbean Martins while we ate. Continuing on westward, we arrived at our AirBNB in mid-afternoon, a complete cabin on a pond known as the Lake House. Our host greeted us and gave us a full run-down on the place, which was quite peaceful and quaint. The pond was full of turtles and fish that were used to receiving food scraps (we were instructed not to leave food in the trash can inside), plus a large flock of Cattle Egrets. A quick bit of birding on the grounds after check-in revealed Venezuelan Troupial, Black-faced Grassquit, Gray Kingbird, and a singing bird that I later learned was Adelaide's Warbler. There was also a Bananaquit building a nest right by the pond.

Later in the afternoon, we went to Laguna Cartagena, only 10 minutes from where we were staying. My hopes here were for Masked Duck and Yellow-breasted Crake, though I had rather small hopes for those and especially for the latter. The scrub along the trail to the observation tower was birdy, with Smooth-billed Ani, Gray Kingbird, Orange-cheeked Waxbill, Adelaide's Warbler, Green Mango, and others. In the open water viewable from the observation tower, we could see Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, West Indian Whistling Duck, Least Grebe, Glossy Ibis, and Purple Gallinule, among more. No sign of my two major targets here, but very enjoyable birding nonetheless. We stopped for groceries and then returned to our cabin, where we enjoyed some beer with Gray Kingbird on the can (name escapes me on the moment) and tacos for dinner, listing to the ubiquitous coqui frogs outside.
 

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MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Likewise - and I love the Swallow-tailed Kite - eyes, tail and wings all pointing in different directions!

Curious as to why you shouldn't put food waste in the bin

Cheers
Mike
 

ovenbird43

Well-known member
Thanks all! I'll try not to take forever between updates haha. Mike, my understanding is that the host did not want any food smells inside the house to attract insects, anoles, etc any more than necessary.

March 15
We got up a bit before first light and drove down toward Rojo Cabo at the very southwestern tip of the island, where there is a National Wildlife Refuge with good mangrove and salt flat habitat. It turns out you can't drive all the way to the tip until the gate opens after 9:00, but we stopped first at the closed observation tower along the road near the salinas. I was greeted with unfamiliar calls, and quickly connected with both Caribbean Elaenia and Puerto Rican Flycatcher, with Cave Swallows overhead. We walked south along the road a short ways and found a trail leading west into the scrub, so we followed that. It was a birdy morning, with many Adelaide's Warblers and Black-faced Grassquits singing, Venezualan Troupial, Mangrove Cuckoo, and the ubiquitous Gray Kingbird. The trail led to some open salt ponds, with small shorebird flocks composed mainly of Stilt Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. After about an hour we turned around and walked back to the car, where a striking Puerto Rican Woodpecker was waiting for us.

We drove up into the nearby town of Combate for some breakfast and a bike rental for Tom, who wanted to go for a ride while I continued to bird. We had a nice meal at the coffee shop connected to El Combate Beach Resort, where Tom rented a bicycle, and an Antillean Mango perched nicely by our rental car for some photos. I left him there, with plans to meet up later at the south tip of Rojo Cabo. I drove back down to the end of the road, where there is a parking area and a path leading up the hillside to an old fort building overlooking some dramatic seacliffs. There were not a lot of birds up on the hillside, but overlooking the seacliffs, I was treated to 3 displaying White-tailed Tropicbirds, which made wide circles around the area before swooping in close by and often landing out of site on the cliffs below. By far my best experience with this species!

I was hoping to find Yellow-shouldered Blackbird in this area, so I returned down the hillside back to the mangroves where they seemed more likely. By that time it was late morning and getting warm and breezy, so bird activity had died down, other than a few singing Yellow (Golden) Warblers and some confiding Puerto Rican Flycatchers. There I found Tom walking back, sans bike - evidently the bike he rented was of such poor quality that he only made it a half mile before returning it and then walking the several miles to find me - bummer! We returned up to the fort and the seacliffs so that he could enjoy the view, although the tropicbirds were nowhere to be seen anymore. He did spot a perched Brown Booby right below us though!

After wrapping up our hike, we moved on to the town of La Parguera, which was my backup plan for the Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. In town there is a hardware store that evidently feeds the blackbirds, so they are at least somewhat reliable here. I spotted several Greater Antillean Grackles in the area but no blackbird, so I went into the store to ask the cashier about them. I think this was the only time I actually used Spanish and was answered in kind, rather than answered in English! At any rate, it was 1:30 and I was told they usually show up around 3:00, so we bought some beers and sat down to wait. It was a short wait though, I heard a call like a very raspy Red-winged Blackbird, and looking up into the tree by the picnic tables, sure enough there was a Yellow-shouldered Blackbird hidden high up in the canopy! We sat down to enjoy our beers anyway, and after a few moments the cashier came out to get me, the blackbird had moved closer to the shop where there was a bird bath. This area provided much better views and photo opportunities.

Our next stop was Guanica State Forest, at 3:00 not the ideal time for birding, but I wanted to be in this area for nightbirds so I figured we might as well do a little afternoon birding here as well. Turned out we only had an hour before the gates closed, but that was enough time for a short hike. The walk was more exciting for insects than birds, with a couple interesting butterflies and a ground-nesting wasp, but I did get my only good look at Lesser Antillean Pewee and a brief view of a sneaky Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo. We drove back down into the town of Guanica after the park closed, grabbing a late lunch/early dinner, and then returned up to the closed gate a bit before dark. Tom opted for a nap while I birded the road during the remaining hour or so before dark. I had many of the same birds as earlier in the day, with Adelaide's Warbler quite common along this stretch. I turned around once it started to get dark, catching a brief call of Puerto Rican Screech-Owl and hearing no less than 7 Puerto Rican Nightjars on the walk back to the car. We drove the 40 minutes back to our cabin to enjoy some drinks in celebration of a long and productive birding day.

Photos:
Puerto Rican Flycatcher, White-tailed Tropicbird, Caribbean Elaenia, Brown Booby, Antillean Mango, Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, Adelaide's Warbler, Lesser Antillean Pewee
 

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ovenbird43

Well-known member
Also some insects of Guanica: Red Rim, Florida Purplewing, Caribbean Cracker, Zeta abdominale (type of mason wasp)
 

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ovenbird43

Well-known member
March 16

Another early start, with about an hour's drive to get to Maricao State Forest, where I'd be targeting the remaining Puerto Rican endemics except for the parrot. The drive from the lake house was mostly on narrow back roads winding up into the mountains, and google maps did a rather poor job at navigating some of these confusing mountain town roads, either telling us to turn at inappropriate times or failing to point out that we should have turned. So, add maybe an extra 15 minutes to our expected drive... but we made it, and stepped out into the empty parking area to a refreshingly cool climate. A different set of bird sounds filled the air, some which I immediately recognized (Black-whiskered and Puerto Rican Vireos) and others I didn't (but soon learned were Red-legged Thrush and Puerto Rican Bullfinch). I spotted a woodpecker near where we parked, turned out to be a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, not especially exciting for me but rather rare here! We walked along the main road toward the trail that starts at km 16.8. It was very birdy, although the dense forest made spotting things tricky, but remaining targets fell one by one - Puerto Rican Tody, Green Mango, Puerto Rican Emerald, Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Puerto Rican Tanager, and Puerto Rican Spindalis. We reached the trail, which seemed to be an old, narrow, overgrown road, with an impenetrable wall of scrub to either side which made birding difficult. Early on I heard an unfamiliar warbler, and then overhead I had a brief yet unmistakable view of Elfin-woods Warbler as it flew over. Excellent, my top target, but what a terrible view! We kept on looking, seeing many Black-faced Grassquits along the trail and hearing a Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo. Perhaps a half mile in, the trail seemed to end, so we turned around and made our way back to the parking area, searching in vain for a better look at the Elfin-woods Warbler.

Back at the car, we grabbed some food to snack on and then took shelter at a covered picnic table as it began to rain. We waited a bit, and I began to worry that this was it for us, and I'd have to settle for a barely tickable view of the warbler. It began to let up after an hour though, so I started walking around the parking area again. Movement of a small bird caught my eye, though it was a female Black-throated Blue Warbler - a nice pickup anyway. But then I caught the movement of another small bird, and there, right at eye level, was a smart Elfin-woods Warbler! It stayed somewhat hidden in the dense understory, and I had left my camera with Tom in the shelter anyway, but it was a much nicer encounter. We stayed a bit longer, trying to get eyes on a calling Puerto Rican Vireo that remained stubbornly hidden, before heading back down the mountain.

We made a stop at the Coqui Distillery on the west coast and then returned to our cabin in the early afternoon, where I knew Tom would appreciate a siesta after yesterday's full day and this morning's early start. I took the time to arrange a few last pieces of our itinerary for later in the trip, and then left Tom to his hammock in late afternoon to go back out to Laguna Cartagena. I still didn't see the hoped-for Masked Duck or Yellow-breasted Crake, but it was still an enjoyable evening of birding, with mostly the same species as before plus Loggerhead Kingbird.

Photos: Puerto Rican Tody, Red-legged Thrush, Puerto Rican Tanager, Sora, West Indian Whistling Duck, Purple Gallinule
 

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ovenbird43

Well-known member
17 March
We were scheduled to travel to Vieques today, but we had the whole morning available before we needed to return our car in San Juan and begin our journey, so we decided to try for Puerto Rican Parrot at Rio Abajo. It was an easy 2-hour drive from where we were staying, taking us into the scenic karst landscape of the north-central portion of the island. I was really hoping we'd be able to enjoy some general hiking, Tom wanted to see the caves in the park and I was hoping to find Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly. However, all the gates and offices were closed, with the trails marked with no trespassing signs. Evidently though, the parrots are typically found by waiting outside the gate underneath some fruiting trees (still to be identified). So, we waited in this area for a while, searching the trees, and once being faked out by a raucous call made by a Red-legged Thrush. A park caretaker came by after a bit, and gave us permission to walk into the park for 1 mile, which we did with delight. We spotted mostly the typical montane forest birds, but the highlights were 3 circling Broad-winged Hawks of the endangered endemic subspecies, and a Puerto Rican Vireo that dropped down to the ground in front of us to collect nest material. Not a whiff of the parrots though, and in late morning we called that a dip and headed off to San Juan.

The rest of the day was lost to travel, with the drive to San Juan, shuttle back to the airport where we picked up a taxi, 1+ hour taxi ride to the Ceiba ferry terminal, and a long wait there. I was surprised at how remote the ferry terminal was, not in town, so really nothing to do but sit in the waiting area. We arrived onto Vieques after dark, realized that you can't just hail a taxi from town, so we walked the 20 minutes with our luggage to our apartment rental. We had rented a small studio apartment in a quiet residential area, an affordable option worth the trek from the terminal, although the lack of a door between the main room and the bathroom was... uh. Fine for a couple who have been married a while I guess!
 

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ovenbird43

Well-known member
18 March

Our first full day on Vieques, we wandered into town around 7:00 am to find most places still closed except for a panaderia, where we grabbed some breakfast and coffee. Having learned last night that taxis need to be arranged in advance, I called to schedule us a pick up for 10:00 to take us across the island to the town of Esperanza, where I had reserved us a golf cart rental for the next few days. We picked it up and drove back to our apartment to get our stuff and make a plan for the day. Important to note, the golf carts cannot go faster than 25 mph, and we clocked ours at a top speed of 19 at one point - the big tires on ours made it quite a bumpy ride, I think I would have been afraid to go much faster! So, it was a bit of a pain driving the narrow road across the island, trying not to hold up traffic too much, but most of the locals seemed to be patient with us.

I didn't do any focused birding this day, the main event ended up being snorkeling at Playa La Chiva, which has a nice reef on the west side of the small island in the bay. A few of the highlight fish included Four-eyed Butterflyfish, Schoolmaster Snapper, and a juvenile Atlantic Blue Tang.
 

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ovenbird43

Well-known member
19 March
I planned to spend the morning birding the Monte Pirata area on the western end of the island while Tom went for a long bike ride. I dropped Tom off on the lower slope of Monte Pirata and started the hike up. The habitat is dense, dry mesquite scrub at low elevation, with birds such as Mangrove Cuckoo, Common Ground-Dove, Adelaide's Warbler, Caribbean Elainia, and Puerto Rican Flycatcher. After a steep climb for a bit, the road wound around to the west side of the mountain and entered a bit of a moister forest type. That's when I heard a 2-note quail dove call, sounding very promising for Bridled based on descriptions and recordings I had perused. It was well hidden, but I carefully tracked it through the forest and up the slope, after about 10 minutes finally spotting it - Bridled Quail-Dove! This was a species I figured I'd be most likely to miss, after the parrot, so it was quite nice to find. Even better, to get a good look at one perched!

With my main target bagged, I returned downslope and decided to do some snorkeling at Punta Arenas, the beach at the westernmost tip of the island. We had been told we couldn't take the golf cart to this location, but Tom had scouted the road on his bike and texted me saying it was fine. Maybe sometimes it's not, but while it had some potholes, it was no worse and maybe even a bit better than some of the other roads that were not off-limits. Anyway, no issues getting there. The presence of a few snorkeling tours told me right where to swim from the beach, and the reefs were nice, with Rock Beauty, French Angelfish, Smooth Trunkfish, and Scrawled Cowfish some of the highlights.

Afterwards, I did a bit more birding in the scrub around El Buey, and then had to rescue Tom from his second flat, which he was struggling to fix. We made a stop at the Crab Island Rum Distillery, and then went to Mosquito Pier where I did a bit more snorkeling. We grabbed some groceries on the way back to our apartment, and had an early and relaxed evening, drinking some pre-packed rum punches and eating mofongos made using frozen and canned goods and a microwave.
 

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