Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Puerto Rico Winter Tour Y2K16: Ceiba Country Inn, El Yunque National Forest

Pearly-eyed Thrasher is a common and confiding bird in Puerto Rico. I'm not quite sure what to make of them though...they are like drab, friendly, fat-legged super-robins.

Puerto Rico is in the books. Birded, done. Thanks to the marvelous MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS who hired me on as a guide, in eight (8) full days of birding, we tallied 137 species. That doesn't seem like a whole lot coming from California, but to put things in perspective that makes us #18 in eBird for Puerto Rico for 2016! So we did pretty good with the time we had, because it's all about the trip list...or maybe the year birds...ok, lifers. Basically, we birded the northeast end of the island, then west to Comeria (the Plain Pigeon area), the southwest, then along the north coast west of San Juan. For those who have as much time as we did, I think it was a really good route - those focused solely on endemics should focus more on the western half of the island though (none of us had birded the Caribbean before, so there were a lot of new native birds we could get elsewhere). Several target birds were easier, or only seen on the east side of the island.

Puerto Rico...why Puerto Rico when you can go to Mexico? Belize? Jamaica? There are a great many other alternatives for a shortish winter trip, but I had some good reasons to put together a trip to PR.

- PR is part of the U.S., so travelling here is relatively easy and free of hassles. Road systems are pretty good, no passport required, English-speakers aren't rare. Tap water was awesome 2/3 places we stayed.

- PR is small. In the amount of time we had, we covered the island very well, and didn't spend a whole lot of time on the road.

- Endemics. PR has 17 endemic species at the moment, with the island's pewee a possible 18th. If you want to see these birds, Puerto Rico must be visited. All can be seen in a short amount of time.

- Caribbean birds. Caribbean species were almost totally new to us, and this is a great introduction to species that can be found on multiple islands.

- Habitat. Though PR isn't the most species-rich place, there are a lot of places to bird, though some species and subspecies are highly endangered.

- Birding on islands is fucking great.

Some general notes for those planning on visiting:

- We rented a 4x4 Jeep on the advice of Officer John Garrett. We did use four wheel drive several times, as a number of roads were very muddy with deep puddles (i.e. 306 in the Lajas Valley, the access road to Laguna Cartagena). Muddy roads may not be as much of an issue later in the dry season, but having 4x4 available with high clearance turned out to be very useful. We were there at the very beginning of the dry (EL SECO) season.

- Google Maps is only partially effective. Do not expect Google Maps to navigate you through Puerto Rico with ease. Many roads that show up in Google Maps are unmaintained tracks, or private roads that cannot be accessed. Be very wary of shortcuts the app may suggest - it works fine for the real highways though.

- Emergency vehicles often drive with their flashing lights on, even though they may not be in a rush to get anywhere. Semi trucks often are equipped with crazy, extravagant flashing lights for seemingly no reason at all. Do not let this alarm you.

- This is the first place I've visited where drivers seem to have no concern about staying in their lanes, often swerving into oncoming traffic. It is baffling. People also seem to be really into driving with their high-beams on all the time.

- Potholes and topes are everywhere.

- Knowing Spanish is helpful, obvi, but many people speak English....not everyone though.

- Gas is pretty cheap. Food can be cheap or pretty expensive, depending on your proximity to tourist areas. Cheapest lodging is airbnb (we stayed in three different places; two were airbnb apartments).

- Biting insects were mildly to moderately annoying - no-see-ums were worse than the mosquitoes, in my opinion, and the chigger scene wasn't bad. Mosquitoes were the worst in the Guanica area and in other low-lying spots, though oddly absent in some places. Obviously, Zika is a thing here, but we weren't exactly terrified of it.

- We brought a spotting scope. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. You should bring one too.

- Mofongo is weird.

December 1: I meet up with Dipper Dan and Officer Adam Searcy and the rest of the MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS group in the baggage claim of the San Juan Airport. Between baggage claim and the rental car center, we get our lifer Zenaida Doves and Greater Antillean Grackles; both species would end up being very abundant, though not obnoxiously so. Without any bullshit, we quickly and effortlessly pick up our Jeep from Hertz, who I am now a big proponent of (Gold Club!). We immediately get lost in San Juan, and then watch a hapless Zenaida Dove get run over by a car right in front of us! Fuck! Finally we reorient and slog through traffic to get east to Ceiba, seeing some roadside Scaly-naped Pigeons and Gray Kingbirds on the way (some of the most abundant birds on the island). We arrive at Ceiba Country Inn, where we would stay the next three nights. The Inn's Puerto Rican Screech-Owls were present as advertised, but we failed to see them despite the birds calling loudly and frequently. There is a SHITLOAD of nocturnal activity around the Inn...coqui frogs, anoles, tarantulas...it was awesome. If being deafened by frogs turns you on, this is where you want to be staying. We got dinner at the Broadway in Ceiba, which was cheap and great.

We saw a staggeringly large number of coqui frogs and anoley things at Ceiba Country Inn, none of which were identified (herpers, feel free to cut loose here), but all of which were appreciated.

December 2: We woke up before dawn and started birding around the Inn. Lifers started piling up quickly...Red-legged Thrush, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, Puerto Rican Oriole, Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Puerto Rican Woodpecker. Adelaide's Warbler, Mangrove Cuckoo and Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo sang from nearby. The Inn turned out to be the easiest place to see the oriole for us on the entire island. Bananaquits were also abundant, and we would see them in numbers practically everywhere we went. 

After a minimal and unimpressive continental breakfast (this place is more like a hotel than a bed and breakfast, which is how it is advertised), we headed up to El Yunque for the day. We birded the gravelled trail behind the visitor's center, and got our lifer looks at Puerto Rican Bullfinch and Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, which we watched capture a scorpion directly us. I also lifered the tody, which I had missed back at the Inn. Both the cuckoo and the bullfinch are common, but not the easiest birds to see.

Puerto Rican Orioles were common early on in the trip. They are obnoxiously nifty looking.

Lifer Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, dismantling a scorpion right above our heads.....fuck!

I love cuckoos. This bird is absolutely facemelting.

The next stop of consequence was the Yokahu Tower, where we lifered a Puerto Rican Emerald taking a bath in a leaf. After the emerald disappeared, we were suddenly besieged by lifers.

Puerto Rican Spindalis (this is the only one I would end up photographing, what a bummer)...

Puerto Rican Tanager (competing for Drabbest Tanager award)...

Green Mango (not expecting this today, especially not one so cooperative)... 

and Loggerhead Kingbird (a bird that has evoked much drool from me in the past)...what a stop!

The mango was a definite bonus bird, as they are less common on the east side of the island, and most visiting birders only seem to get them in Maricao. Some other stops in the park weren't particularly noteworthy on the bird front, but walking the Las Minas trails were very productive. Immediately after getting the first Black-throated Blue Warbler of the trip, it started dumping rain so we took cover in one of the great many rain shelters present (really, there are a lot). The birding here was excellent, even though we spent a significant amount of time birding from rain shelters.

The lush forest at Las Minas soaks up the rain.

Nerds avoid soaking up the rain.

Scaly-naped Pigeons are very appealing.

Puerto Rican Bullfinches are common, thankfully. I was really taken by them.

As great as the bullfinches are, it's hard to match the legendary Puerto Rican Tody.

Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes (above) foraged in the creek (and in a rain shelter) at Las Minas. Check that raging supercilium! This was the only LOWA we would find in PR.

Lots of awesome orchids were blooming in El Yunque...but this is an iris I misidentified as an orchid. Anyways, don't you love the tropics?

We visited El Yunque on a Friday, to avoid the weekend crowds, which I would recommend. The Big Trees parking lot was full but otherwise the people sitch was pretty manageable. We did not try for the Elfin in El Yunque, opting instead to look for it at Maricao ("Elfin-woods Warbler siempre en Maricao" - random local photographer we met). After Las Minas, we randomly ended up in Fajardo, hoping to blunder into some trip birds at accessible beaches. And blunder we did! We got our only Sandwich Terns of the trip, as well as the first Brown Boobies, which seemed to be fairly common.

Pelicans, Sandwich and Royal Terns roost at sunset, while frigatebirds wheeled overhead. Life is better with frigatebirds wheeling overhead. We grabbed dinner at an overpriced place a couple blocks away, but I have no regrets about putting away those damn fine shrimp.

We put these Smooth-billed Anis to bed. We would see many more during the trip.

Back at Ceiba Country Inn, we drank much Medalla and failed again to see the screech-owls, which were very quiet that night. This may have been because a nearby neighbor was blasting some of the shittiest music I've heard in my life...and believe me, these ears are no stranger to shit.

Ugh, so many lifers in one day...the mind reels...More Puerto Rico coverage coming soon!


  1. We were in the exact same spots on the same days down there...Puerto Rico is great! And yes...there was some truly shitty music there.

    1. Did you get Masked Duck or the crake? Those were two unfortunate misses for us, though I didn't have high hopes for the crake.

    2. Missed on those but didn't spend a lot of time looking for them...did get all the endemics which made me very happy indeed.

  2. Great post!

    Although I'm sure there are lots of awesome orchids in El Yunque, that's an iris. And I don't think it's native to PR...

    1. How embarrassing! What makes it so? I've never seen one so unadorned. Yeah I have no clue what was native or not as far as the blooming plants we saw.

    2. It's a very common point of confusion.

      Lots of other differences, but irises have radial symmetry. Orchids have bilateral symmetry-- one of the petals is modified as a "landing pad" for pollinators. (e.g. like this http://www.monteverdeorchidgarden.net/pages/Oncidium%20sp..html).

  3. Puerto Rican Orioles and Yellow-winged Caciques must shop the same designers.

    1. some birds choose to sport a chic crestless look

  4. I enjoyed seeing the smooth-billed Anis. The thick wedge of their beak is impressive--I was surprised to discover that their diet is mostly insects (not seeds and nuts, as I had assumed). The nice pair featured in your photo have received the Vanta black upgrade; stealth mode foraging for privacy-conscious passerines (er, near passerines). Cannot wait to see the rest! Good pix.


    1. They love buggish creatures. One of my favorite times with them (GBAN) was watching a flock pick off scorpions in front of an army ant swarm on the side of an old temple in Mexico.