Day Three in Southwestern Puerto Rico – Maricao State Forest (Elfin Woods)

Elfin Woods
Elfin Woods

My third and final day to myself in southwestern Puerto Rico would be quite memorable.  I placed myself within the center of the Elfin Woods of the Maricao State Forest.  I arrived at ~ 06:30 and did not leave until ~19:30.  The AM weather was spectacular, with cool temps and some steady breeze and partly cloudy skies.  I stayed the entire day in a little recreation/biological station that was about 1/4 of a mile long.  It contained nice bathrooms and covered picnic tables.  This was a good thing because the rains came onto the mountain at about 13:00 and stayed mostly through the time that I left.

Kilometer 16
Kilometer 16

On mountain road 120, look for this sign.  This is one of only a likely two spots on earth to have a good chance of seeing the Elfin Woods Warbler, one of the endemic bird species to the island and one I had little hope of finding.

CCC at Maricao
CCC at Maricao

There were a couple of those old CCC signs here as well.

Elfin Woods - Tourist Style
Elfin Woods – Tourist Style

I had read bits and pieces that there were trail heads here and others scattered throughout this small forest preserve, but I could find no signs of those anywhere.  Ultimately, I doubt I missed much.  The ~1/4 of a mile I had was split mostly between the birds and myself.  All it took was some patience, or, lots of patience as the birds came and went into the thick vegetation that rose or dropped steeply on one respective side of the road or the other.

Antillean Mango
Antillean Mango

Many species of tropical hummingbirds are known to occur within a narrow range of altitude.  The Antillean Mango can be found throughout the rainforest habitats of Puerto Rico, up to the highest peaks of the island.

Puerto Rican Bullfinch
Puerto Rican Bullfinch

The Puerto Rican Bullfinch is not a finch at all, but a Cardinal.  It has a song that is quite reminiscent of our Northern Cardinal.  I found these guys, like so many of the birds on the island, to be a bit shy and tricky to get a clear view of.

Puerto Rican Tanager
Puerto Rican Tanager

The Puerto Rican Tanager is another endemic bird of the island.  The cloudy skies made photography quite challenging.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher
Pearly-eyed Thrasher

After this Pearly-eyed Thrasher had its fill of the water-apple, I made sure I got my two or three as well… 😉

Exotics
Exotics

While this stretch of mountains is a dream for the botanist (more than 250 species of trees), several of these are imports from other tropical locations.  Similar to the El Yunque forest on the eastern side of the island, several exotic tree species have been introduced here from Australia.  While several of these species seem to have a small or even neutral effect on the native ecosystems, some have become quite problematic, like these invasive eucalyptus.

Puerto Rican Tody
Puerto Rican Tody

The Todys were here as well!  And I was in for quite a surprise.

Puerto Rican Tody
Puerto Rican Tody

One of the several highlights of the day was finding a PR Tody nest cavity in the side of a mud bank.  These guys are in the same family as the Kingfishers, and build a similar nest cavity.  I happened to be walking by as a bird hopped to the entrance and darted within feet from my face while giving me a terrible scolding.  I backed off a bit, hoping it would come back for a great photo opportunity.  After 20-30 minutes no birds came, so I pushed on, not wanting to be the reason a youngster was not getting a meal.  I would walk by the cavity a few times over the course of the day, but never had any luck.  I don’t think they spend a lot of time within sight of the nest cavity, it being a quick in and out operation.

Puerto Rican Tody Nest Cavity
Puerto Rican Tody Nest Cavity

Although I was able to find a couple of the PR Woodpeckers the day prior at Cabo Rojo, I was not able to get any photographs.  Thankfully a group came through the area and I managed a couple of mediocre shots.  Spectacular birds, as are most Woodpeckers.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker
Puerto Rican Woodpecker

Finally, the quintessential bird for this most Tolkienesque of forests.  The Elfin Wood Warbler.  I was able to watch a small group of these quite mobile darts move in and out of the dense, roadside wall of the forest canopy.  Only described by science in 1972, it has been estimated there may be as few as 1800 of these birds left on the island.

Elfin Woods Warbler
Elfin Woods Warbler

Human modification and destruction of these mountain forests are having major detrimental effects on these habitats throughout the tropics.  In Puerto Rico this habitat is being lost to communication arrays and the roads to service them – one of the costs of global connectivity.  I was appalled by some of the views I had of antennas being stacked as thick as trees on some of the mountain tops in this Forest.

Coffee is king here and some of the oldest and largest coffee farms are found within Maricao.  I was able to speak with several folks on the island who worked as, or were part of families associated with farming coffee.  Not one of them practiced or had any plans to practice shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee.  Although it certainly is not the perfect answer in protecting these endemic mountain species, purchasing shade-grown coffee is an important practice in enabling conservation in these areas.

As the light waned and the rains began to lighten, I sat listening to the coqui frogs and other pieces of the night symphony begin their warm up.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, I heard what I had hoped to hear – the Puerto Rican Screech Owl.  This bird gave me a total of 17 of a possible 18 endemic bird forms for the enchanted isle.  The only miss was the Puerto Rican Parrot, which is only found in small patches of El Yunque to the east.  I can only hope that these birds can continue existing in their present forms long after I have not.

Thanks for visiting…
OZB

 

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Day Two in Southwestern Puerto Rico – Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge

Wilson's Plover
Wilson’s Plover

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.

Cabo Rojo Trails
Cabo Rojo Trails

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
Subtropical Dry Forest

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.

Cactus
Cactus

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.

The Salt Flats
The Salt Flats

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.

Whimbrel
Whimbrel
Whimbrel
Whimbrel

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.

Snowy Plover
Snowy Plover

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.  😦

Least Tern
Least Tern
Least Tern
Least Tern

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.

Wild Cotton
Wild Cotton

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.

Mangrove Pier
Mangrove Pier

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.

White-cheeked Pintail
White-cheeked Pintail

With only approximately 500 pairs known on the island, I was quite fortunate to find and photograph these White-cheeked Pintail.

Smooth-billed Ani
Smooth-billed Ani
Caribbean Elaenia
Caribbean Elaenia
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Yellow-crowned Night Heron

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.

Salt Production
Salt Production

I observed only the Black-necked Stilt utilizing this area, as the next two images suggest, they are quite tolerant of the saline conditions.

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt

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.

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt

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.
OZB

 

 

Day One in Southwestern Puerto Rico – Guanica State Forest and Biosphere Reserve

Guanica Monkey
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo

Ask the average gringo about their perception of Puerto Rico’s climate and habitats and I am sure most would describe heavy rains associated with tropical rainforests.  However, due to rain shadow effects from the central mountain chain known as the Cordillera Central, much of the southern coastal regions receive very little direct rainfall.   On my first day of exploring southwestern Puerto Rico, I found myself a 20 minute drive west of Ponce in the Dry Forest of Guanica.  Guanica receives about 30″ of rainfall per year, which is very close to the annual average for the state of Missouri.  However, with the harsher tropical suns, coastal winds and rocky/sandy soils, this amount of precipitation does not go nearly as far in Guanica.  This coastal habitat is much more dry-adapted than the comparatively lush Ozark forests of Missouri.

IMG_0331
Welcome to Guanica

Typically dense and developed as Puerto Rico tends to be, the entrance to this reserve was literally on the edge of a subdivision, which is where I found myself with an hour to wait near sunrise before the gates where opened.  No worries, I grabbed the camera and the binocs and did some of my first real birding on the island.  With about 12 named trails of who knows how many total miles, Guanica (~10,00 acres) offers a lot to see, including a Guayacan tree estimated to be over 700 years old.  The photo below shows a monument I was to see elsewhere on the island.  These identification markers were carved by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (“Las Tres C” in Puerto Rico).  I had never given a thought about the CCC’s presence in U.S. territories like Alaska and PR, but it turns out they were quite active in PR – not only building roads and other structures but replanting forests as well.  Applauds to these guys for replanting so many trees and helping to set up these reserves.  However, along with the National Forest Service the CCC unfortunately participated in bringing exotic, “desirable” trees like mahogany, teak and eucalyptus.  Many of these trees were chosen for their fast-growing ability and their tendencies to suck up a lot of water in order to dry out the island.  Consequently, in Puerto Rico’s protected natural areas, a significant amount of the forests’ composition is Australian or Asian and completely altered.

CCC-Puerto Rican Style
CCC-Puerto Rican Style

I parked at the visitor’s center, which is located on the site of an old sugarmill ruins.  I was unable to find a single trail sign.  I had read the park ranger on duty spoke English, but if the attendant on this Saturday morning did, maybe he was hesitant to do so with the sweaty, ginger gringo who wielded no more than a dozen words of Spanish (see below).

Pathetic Gringo
Pathetic Gringo

Always a good idea while out in wild areas, but definitely a good idea in PR is to use a GPS device.  Every map I could find was deficient in more ways than one.  The GPS unit I found to be the best during my visit was the map app on my iPhone.  Also, as you might have guessed, the Guanica Dry Forest is DRY.  Bring plenty of water.  I thought the three liters I brought on this hike was a bit of overkill.  However, at the end of my ~ eight miles of hiking up and down these coastal hills under extreme heat and sun, I was completely dry.   I decided to head out on the most promising of the retired forest road trails and it wound up being the one I hoped it was, leading me to the coast where I was to find Fort Capron that was built by Americans in 1898 and is really more of a lookout tower.  There is also a lighthouse nearby, but not all that interesting either.

Fort Capron
Fort Capron

Okay, enough with the tour guide stuff.  Early in the day, I made my first acquaintance with what would turn out to be my favorite bird of the trip – the Puerto Rican Tody.  Check it out…

Puerto Rican Tody
Puerto Rican Tody

I would find these guys all over my travels in southwestern PR.  They are related to and behave somewhat like the Kingfishers, are slightly larger than a Chickadee, are nearly as bold as a Kingbird and as brilliantly colored as a Parrot.  I captured the one below as it tackled a stick insect.

Puerto Rican Tody - IMG_2351
Puerto Rican Tody

Much of the trails of Guanica are old forest roads that cut through the habitat, mostly along hilltops.  Along most of my hike I was faced with thick walls of scrubby vegetation about 10- 20 feet high, often so thick that I was faced with a mere meter or two of visibility.  Even though I could hear bird vocalizations, I was often at a lost to see or identify the species.  With patience, however, views can be had.  Near the fort, where the hillside slopes got steeper and the coast loomed near, I heard what I immediately knew to be cuckoo on their way up to intercept the trail – the Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo.  These birds were at first so close, I couldn’t possibly get one in the frame without cutting off significant portions.

Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo

Towards this end of the reserve I was presented with more open views.

IMG_0355
Guanica Hillside

I was quite fortunate to find the quiet and shy Mangrove Cuckoo during this hike.

Mangrove Cuckoo
Mangrove Cuckoo

Abundant in Puerto Rico and across Caribbean coastlines, the Magnificent Frigatebird  is a seabird that feeds by catching fish on the wing.  This is a long-lived species.  The one pictured below is a juvenile.

Magnificient Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird

It seemed that the closer I was to the coast, the drier the habitat became.  The Caribbean Sea is just behind me where I stood to take the picture below.

Cactus Scrub
Cactus Scrub

Well, that covers my trip report for the first of three days.  Southwestern PR is a great place for the birder-naturalist.  Of the approximately 17 or so endemic birds on the island, all but the Puerto Rican Parrot can be found here.  Also, highly varied habitats can be visited within short driving distances.  Stay tuned for my next day’s trip-log where I will be summarizing my day spent at Cabo Rojo NWR and Salt Flats.

Puerto Rican Tody
Puerto Rican Tody

If you made it this far, thanks for visiting!

OZB

 

 

 

 

Birds of Puerto Rico – Grey Kingbird

Grey Kingbird
Grey Kingbird

The Grey Kingbird is found at lower elevations throughout the Caribbean as well as coastal Florida.  Typical Kingbird behavior, these guys fear nothing and take charge of whatever territory they call their own.  I found these birds at most places I visited on the island, but the ones around the hotel were so bold, I tended to watch my back lest they use that hooked beak on me…

Grey Kingbird
Grey Kingbird

Thanks for your visit.

OZB
email: handsomeozarkbillyboy@gmail.com

Birds of Puerto Rico – Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican

Talk about the place to eat.  I had a great time watching these birds preening and carrying on over the mangrove patches at a fantastic Mediterranean style restaurant named Santorini Ocean Lounge Restaurant.  Parts Greek, Spanish and Puerto Rican, seafood is the reason to dine here.  Add the views of the Caribbean Sea, potential for birds, English menus and servers and craft beer, and there is no reason to eat anywhere else in the area near the Holiday Inn in Ponce.

Less social than the American White Pelican, the Brown Pelican usually hunts alone and frequently dives for its food.  The American White is considered accidental as far south as Puerto Rico, but the Brown is quite common across southern shorelines.  This bird kept eyeing my seafood paella.

Thanks for visiting.

OZB
email: handsomeozarkbillyboy@gmail.com

Ozark Bill Visits the Enchanted Isle – Birds of Puerto Rico

Birds of the Enchanted Isle
Birds of the Enchanted Isle

The company recently sent me to Puerto Rico.  When not on the job, I found some time to explore the hotel grounds as well as visit a few reserves in the south-western portion of the island.  I will go into some details about the forests and reserves (and the birds they contained) I had the fortune to visit in later posts.  To begin, I thought I would share a few images I made in the short-scrub habitat that surrounded the hotel.  Surprisingly, by the end of my visit I found that many of the birds I was to see in the more wild parts of this area could be found at the Holiday Inn at Ponce.

Adelaide's Warbler
Adelaide’s Warbler

The Adelaide’s Warbler was one of the first birds who I came to know during this trip.  I walked through their territories around the hotel and everywhere else I found myself in the south-western part of the island.  A fantastic little warbler with a pleasant song.

White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove

Found throughout the Caribbean and Central America, the White-winged Dove is quite comfortable in areas of human disturbed habitats.

Greater Antillean Grackle
Greater Antillean Grackle

The Greater Antillean Grackle ruled the hotel grounds, constantly displaying and chasing females.  Typical Grackle.

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

The same Northern Mockingbird as we have in Missouri, but with a different vocal repertoire.

Venezuelan Troupial
Venezuelan Troupial

Quite the large Icterus, the Venezuelan Troupial is believed to have been introduced from the mainland.  These guys were a pleasure to watch and listen to.