In the afternoon, we called it quits at Cabo Rojo and headed east to La Parguera for some good old-fashioned geri birding. The "hardware store" in La Parguera was easy enough to find, though not so easy to identify correctly. For anyone heading that way, this is what it looks like. You see, BB&B is here to help.
Why were we here? This was the easiest and most reliable place for Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. On the right side of the store, they toss out bread every day to feed the doves/icterids, and Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds are expected among the visitors. Well it turned out we got there way too early, but eventually the bread went out and the blackbirds came in.
Success! Another endemic down. We didn't see very many, and unfortunately 2-3 of the birds we did see (in other words, about half) had growths on their faces that looked a lot like avian pox. It was a bummer...I'm not sure what exactly it was or how they contracted their afflictions, but I suspect feeding them there may not be the best idea...they are endangered and not exactly thriving. We had a much better experience with them a couple days later someplace else, which I will get to in the next Puerto Rico post.
The next morning was just a total clusterfuck. There is no other way to describe it, although we did lifer Puerto Rican Vireo in the process. Not only did we get lost, we also definitely would have gotten ourselves stuck if not for being able to use 4X4. Google Maps was our enemy that day. We were trying to get to the Maricao forest, sanctuary of the Elfin-woods Warbler and supposedly one of the best places to bird...well it turns out getting there from the south is easy (go to Sabana Grande, take 120 all the way there), but that is the only way you can go! Don't even think about trying any other horseshit, unless it is from the town of Maricao itself (north of the forest).
We did finally make it, first stopping at a little unused track that goes north of 120 at the 13 km marker. We got great looks at Puerto Rican Vireos, which are not dissimilar from Eastern Bell's Vireo.
We couldn't ask for better looks really, so this was very satisfying. After getting vireo'd, the next bird we saw was a female Elfin-woods Warbler...holy shit! I thought those birds were supposed to be hard! A Green Mango was flitting around, and a little while later Dipper Dan and Officer Searcy found the male Elfin right on the main road.
If I was British, I would tell you that the views we had of this bird was superb. I'm not though, so the views we had were fucking sick. The bird was very cooperative, not being in any rush to get anyplace, and wasn't acting that much different than a typical warbler. Before I knew what was happening, it was already too late...I had birdgasmed.
I like this photo because it is confusing. Behold the No-headed Warbler ("No-faced" subspecies).
Though it lacks the power to melt face or cripple body and mind, seeing this bird well was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It is only found in higher altitudes on the island, and Maricao is the one really reliable place for it...had we missed it, we would have come right back up the next morning. It was first discovered in 1969, which is astoundingly recent. These idols of inconspicuousness managed to remain safely unidentified for an incredibly long time.
The rest of Maricao was...disappointing. It turns out middle of day is not always best time to make for greatest of bird. We had some mediocre road birding elsewhere, but the area around the ranger station was quite dead (though Officer Searcy did get another Elfin here), and we got kicked out of one of the recommended birding trails. There was some sort of bizarre operation going on that involved some biologists doing something bird-related who did not want to talk about what was happening, I don't know exactly what they were doing but it looked interesting. Which is not what needs to be talked about...the point is that I'm sure the birding is better earlier in the morning. We were bummed to not pick up anything else new for the trip (at this point, not seeing Lesser Antillean Pewee was getting stressful), but we got the bird that mattered most and headed down to roll the dice on Masked Duck.
Dipper Dan and I knew the fix was in even before we got out of the Jeep. We knew how the Masked Duck game works...the Masked Duck wins every time and anyone else playing eats shit. Simple. And so we made a long, hot walk through the mud (the roads were way too wet to drive) to the known Masked Duck pond in Lajas Valley. There were some crappy exotics, Least and Pied-billed Grebes, a Purple Gallinule (trip bird!), a rail that scurried over the aquatic plants that went unidentified (this is a good spot for Yellow-breasted Crake as well...dammit). No duck, as expected.
At least the incoming storm was nice to look at. I got stuck in the mud at one point on the way back (how embarrassing!), but at least we made it back to the Jeep before the rain really hit and no one had broken into it. Success? No.
Life is pain.
Maybe I will have another chance at Masked Duck in 2017. Or 2018. Does it really matter? I'm not going to see one. Anyways, after our unsurprising failure we made the brilliant decision of quitting birding for the rest of the afternoon instead of hiking to another pond through the mud where we would not see Masked Duck again, and retreated to our place in Guanica. We got dinner fixins at a grocery store, chilled for an hour, then set the next nerdplan into action.
The good thing about staying where we were is that we were right next to the Guanica Dry Forest. El Seco is good for daylight birding and all, but what that really means is that we were staying right next to Puerto Rican Nightjars, which are pretty much endemic to this rare and restricted habitat type. Instead of looking for them where most people do, we turned east on 333 and slowly drove with the windows down, listening...we had them within 5 minutes! We heard multiple individuals and had great looks at one, though we lack photos to prove it...
The stretch of road around 17.957622, -66.869134 was quite good for them. I couldn't believe our luck, they were remarkably easy to find considering this species was thought to be extinct for a considerable span of time. How often do you get to see a species that has come back from the dead. Nocturnal [e]mission complete!
The next morning it was off to Laguna Cartagena, one of the best wetland sites on the island. White-winged Parakeet was a reluctant lifer en route. We approached from the only recommended entrance point, turning south off 101 at 18.028426, -67.109147. This is a straight shot down to the western access points of the refuge, but the road was covered in vast, deep puddles...it would not have been possible to barge this in a sedan, but we had no problem with the jeep. We made it to the trail to the tower without any problems.
There were a great many butterflies here...here is a buckeye thingy.
I think this here is a cracker thingy.
This American Kestrel (not a thingy) was following the trogon methodology of domain surveying.
When we first got to the tower, I was kind of disappointed...the laguna is highly filled in with sediment and vegetation, but with persistent scoping we found some ducks and gallinules in the smaller, more open pockets that hadn't been choked out by reeds and shrubs.
The tower really did provide a good view, as Officer Searcy demonstrates. Most importantly, it allowed us to find West Indian Whistling-Ducks (many!), which are very uncommon on Puerto Rico and not at all something that was guaranteed...this lifer helped make up for the lack of Masked Duck, which presumably can also be found in this large wetland. Dipper Dan even found a pair of whistling-ducks with ducklings, for bonus bird points. Other trip birds we got here included Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and Sora.
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After the tower, we walked another trail from the entrance road out into the marsh (18.012569, -67.108868). The "trailhead" is well-marked, and a short distance north of the parking area for the tower. It is very overgrown but there was still some decent visibility toward the end. Fortunately, some West Indian Whistling-Ducks were holding things down, and although not hell of close I did my best to soak them in with my eyes.
West Indian Whistling-Duck and Glossy Ibis (trip bird!) combo. I really like that combo.
The marshes here are absolutely saturated with Purple Gallinules, I don't think I've ever seen so many in one place.
I've still never dealt one the crushing this species deserves, but I think you get the idea that these crippling blue bastards are just begging to be looked at. Why do they exist? How lucky are we to live in a world with Purple Gallinules?
Horrendously large numbers of butters here. Just terrible. Plagues of them. It was great.
Our eBird checklist for the morning is here. The birding had been very rewarding, and we were whistling-duck heroes...but there would be more heroics and more lifers before the day was done.