I found myself on the second day a little further from Ponce, where I visited what has been described as the most important habitat in the Caribbean for migratory and resident shorebirds – the Salt Flats of Cabo Rojo NWR.
The refuge was first established in 1974, when it was comprised of a patch of subtropical dry forest near the coast in the southwestern tip of the island. This patch of nearly 600 acres was gifted to the US Fish and Wildlife Services by the CIA, of course. Unfortunately, this initial plot of land and the nice looking visitor’s center that is run by the USFWS is closed on Sundays, the day of my visit. Within the tall wire fence, the forest and savanna habitat looked very inviting. Immediately upon exiting the car to deposit some used coffee I watched as a pair of striking Puerto Rican Woodpeckers flew directly over me to land in a tree, bathed in the light of the golden hour, just on the other side of the fence. Of course they would not stay put while I put the camera together.
Subtropical Dry Forest is characterized by low annual rainfall (~30-35″ annually), high temperatures of over 100 F and plants adapted to such climatic conditions. Within such habitat plants normally achieve heights of 15″ on average. Plants are further adapted to these hot, xeric conditions by having small, waxy leaves – often shaped into thorns to dissuade herbivores.
Several cactus where found throughout the refuge. The photo above captures not only cactus, but a dry-adapted lichen, known as tropical mistletoe, that was quite common as well.
In 1999, approximately 1300 acres of salt flats were added to the refuge. These salt flats are very important for overwintering shorebirds, but I was a bit late for this as the majority of these birds were already headed north to the arctic tundra. However, I was able to find a few straggling migrants as well as nesting species – including several endemics of Puerto Rico.
The Salt Flats are considered Important Bird Areas by Birdlife International and the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. This area serves as important nesting grounds for the Black-necked Stilt, Antillean Nighthawk, Least Tern and both Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, among others.
This refuge is also important habitat for the federally endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. This author considers himself fortunate to find one bird, but was crushed by not being able to get a photograph. 😦
One plant that I encountered over most of my travels on this corner of the island was very common within Cabo Rojo – Wild Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum). This wild relative of cultivated cotton is perennial in nature and adapted for salty, sandy soils.
There is quite a length of trails throughout the salt flats and the native islanders used these for recreation activities like running and bike riding as well as means to get to different beaches around this section of coast. Near the area where I parked was some very attractive mangrove groves that attracted the Yellow Warbler.
Four species of mangrove are commonly found on the island: Red, Black, White and Button. Tide lines and preference/tolerance of submerged roots is the primary reason behind how the different species are composed along Puerto Rico’s coastlines.
With only approximately 500 pairs known on the island, I was quite fortunate to find and photograph these White-cheeked Pintail.
Towards one end of the salt flats were some of the workings that produced the salt for non-food purposes. I could not determine if the works were still in production, or if it was left mainly for show.
I observed only the Black-necked Stilt utilizing this area, as the next two images suggest, they are quite tolerant of the saline conditions.
I never found a nest or chicks, but the way these guys were harassing me during this part of my hike, I would be surprised if there was not some sort of nesting activity going on nearby.
So, that was Cabo Rojo. I would love to visit during a weekday when the dry forest/savanna section is open and when the few narrow roads that wind through this narrow bottleneck are not clogged with vacationing islanders.
Next time, I will recap the last day of my visit where I ventured a bit north in latitude to visit the Tolkienesque mountain rainforest known as the Elfin Woods of Maricao State Forest.
Thanks for your visit.