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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

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