24 August 2013

Vieques

There are times in life when one must realize that they were wrong, that no matter what angle they look at the situation from, they've made a poor decision. As I stood a the end of a line several hundred people long waiting to purchase tickets to the island of Vieques, I knew I had made a bad decision.

Having secured one of the last parking spaces we could find, Mike and I stood at the end of the motionless horde of tourists waiting to board the small ferry to Vieques, the largest auxiliary island in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It was then, when all hope seemed lost, that I overheard a bottle vendor speaking to a local resident, and a beam of light seemed to shine down on us from the heavens.

After I jumped in on the conversation, it was revealed that the line, and all its people, were waiting to head to Culebra, a smaller, adjacent island that has some of the best beaches in the world. Though nice, the smaller island lacks one key feature: a bioluminescent bay. And so, after some talking and being guided around a little, we ended up being last in line for the boat to Vieques - but now within 40 people of the ticket booth. Our spirits were immediately raised, and though we still had to wait several hours for the boat, we were soon on our way to the Spanish Virgin Islands.

On our way, we enjoyed the sights from the top deck of the cargo ferry we were riding on. The prominent peak of El Yunque shrank in the distance as we headed past the reefs and small island off Puerto Rico's eastern shore. The bounding, insect like flight of Brown Noddies heading to sea almost made us miss the foraging Sooty Terns, our only Bridled Tern of the entire trip, and a lazy, hitchhiking Magnificent Frigatebird.

When not being lazy, Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), such as this one on the Fajardo-Isabela Segunda Ferry, are incredible fliers, and steal food from other seabirds.

It was not long until we were in the capitol of Vieques, Isabela Segunda, and on our way to bird. But, having scoured the main island and knowing that there were no endemic species present on the island, we took our time by stopping at the first restaurant we could find and eating some delicious food.

Scaly-breasted Thrashers (Margarops fuscatus), such as this one I photographed in Guanica State Forest, are common residents on Vieques. 

As we recovered from our food comas, we began to check out the island through the windows of our taxi. Vieques, once home to a large military base, used to host a wide array of military exercises. But, after the accidental death of a local, the residents decided that they no longer wanted military presence on their idyllic island. After years of protest, half the island was ceded and transformed into Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. As such, much of the island is still fairly wild, and our taxi drive took us along the edge of this new frontier.

It was not long before we arrived at our location - Parque Nacional de Sun Bay, located within the Bioluminescent Bay Reserve. The water was a perfect temperature, with tide pools having water close to 90 degrees F in case you still got too cold, small waves lapped the shore, and bands of Scaly-naped Pigeons passed by overhead. Needless to say, it was a beautiful place to camp.

Sun Bay, taken with my iPhone on the way to eat one of the best dinners I've ever had. We camped just out of frame on the far left edge of the image.

From here, we explored our surroundings, and enjoyed the interesting insular populations of birds we came across. An endemic form of Banaquit, found only in the Virgin Islands and not on the main island of Puerto Rico, couldn't hide its differences from Mike's sharp eyes. We laughed at how rare and sought after this bird was in the mainland, when here they were possibly the most numerous birds of our entire trip! Walking along the shore, Adelaide's Warblers and Antillean Crested Hummingbirds called in the dry scrub, while we flushed Black-bellied Plovers, the nearctic subspecies of Whimbrel and a smattering of other small shorebirds. Our wanderings brought us to Esperanza, the second largest town on the island, where we ate an incredible meal at one of the local bars. Taking our time and watching Common Ground-Doves and Pearly-eyed Thrashers, we made our way back to camp.

Male Puerto Rican Woodpecker (Melanerpes portoricensis) foraging near Sun Bay, Vieques.

After arriving back at our camp, we waited for dark before meeting up with our neighbors and heading to the legendary Bahia Mosquito, the brightest bioluminescent bay on earth. After an extremely rough, traffic ridden drive through mangrove estuaries, we arrives at the bay. Unfortunately, a local had his lantern on for a while, making it impossible to pick out the bioluminescence, but after the lights were turned off and we readjusted to the dark, the ethereal blue glow that surrounded our feet became clear. The blue, which unfortunately did not show up on any of our cameras, is cause by dinoflagellates that live in the bay and glow when disturbed. As such, it was possible to cup our hands full of water, stare down and shake slightly, seeing the small organisms glow like tiny stars floating in space. Fish darting past us lit up like lightning strikes, and I was even able to write my name on the surface of the ocean.

The next day, Michael and I began the long journey back to Denver. We took a taxi across the island, waited three hours for a ferry while watching our only Barn Swallow of the trip circle in a flock of Caribbean Martins, took two hour ferry to Fajardo, and camped at the Seven Seas one last time. The next morning, we drove to San Juan, dropped off the car, waited four hours for our flight, then flew back to Miami and, finally, back to Denver.

It was an excellent exploration of one of the largest islands in the United States, and one that I will not soon forget. I look forward to hopefully returning there someday, and enjoying the beautiful mountains and beaches once again.

A final parting shot of a dapper and fascinating Puerto Rican Woodpecker (Melanerpes portoricensis) in Balneario de Añasco, Puerto Rico. This is in the same genus as Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Lewis's Woodpeckers, and part of a fascinating array of Antillean woodpeckers. 
It was also one of my favorite birds on the trip.

21 August 2013

Puerto Rico

After El Yunque, the rest of our time on the island of Puerto Rico was spent in the hills, mountains, and lowlands of the southwest part of the island, specifically in the municipality of Cabo Rojo. A far cry from the steep rainforest laden hills of the northeast, the southwest was a nice mix of mangroves, montane dry forest and deciduous tropical lowland forest. By looking at the books and comparing the maps, we could tell that this was the place for most of the Puerto Rican endemics we were still missing.

Getting there, however, was far less simple.

We started the day by cutting up the west side of El Yunque National Forest. The road, becoming progressively worse as we drove on, was hemmed in on all sides by tree ferns, bamboo, and a wide variety of tropical trees. Barely one lane wide in most areas, it was obvious this thoroughfare had not received much traffic or attention in the recent past. We paused on our way north at a few different localities, spying a Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo on a fence, flushing Ruddy Quail-Doves from the road, and having a flyby of the only Key West Quail-Dove of our trip. Flocks of Scaly-naped Pigeons crossed the ridges, Bananaquits sang incessantly and the calls of Puerto Rican Bullfinches betrayed their presence in the impenetrable darkness of the rainforest.

After enjoying the damp highlands, we continued onwards into the central part of the island. The roads were so narrow and winding that I still dream (or, more appropriately, wake from nightmares that) I am driving them. Mike and I will always remember this as the day of permanent carsickness, as it was almost constant tight corners on narrow roads for six hours of driving. The rewards, however, were worth it. We made our way to the mountains above Comerio, where we stopped at the Plain Pigeon preserve. Luckily, we caught several glimpses of the pigeons as they flew overhead with the Scaly-naped Pigeons. The woods also hosted a cooperative Mangrove Cuckoo and our first "Puerto Rican" Loggerhead Kingbird of the endemic taylori subspecies.

From here, we made our way south, and finally ended around sunset in downtown Ponce, where our hotel had displaying Antillean Nighthawks all around us.

Over the next few days, we covered the areas of Parque Nacional de Tres Hermanos, Bosque Estatal de Maricao, and Cabo Rojo extensively. The mix of habitats enabled us to wrap up finding every single Puerto Rican endemic bird with the exception of the localized Puerto Rican Nightjar. The dry woods hosted an array of fascinating birds, with calling Puerto Rican Flycatchers and Caribbean Elaenias keeping us company, and the trilling calls of Puerto Rican Pewees and whistling "Puerto Rican" Lesser Antillean Pewees.

Puerto Rican Flycatcher (Myiarchus antillarum) in the mangroves south of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.

"Puerto Rican" Lesser Antillean Pewee in Maricao State Forest, Puerto Rico. According to the AOU, this is the blancoi subspecies of Contopus latirostris, while our field guide listed it as a separate species, C. portoricensis. I am not sure why this discrepancy exists, so I have documented them according to the current AOU listings.

The birding on the west and southwest coasts was excellent. Near Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge, we caught up with the critically endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird feeding from a trash can, and saw hundreds of shorebirds on the Salinas near the actual cape of Cabo Rojo. Caribbean Martins were our constant overhead companions as we birded everything from montane forest to mowed palm campgrounds.

Puerto Rican Vireo (Vireo latimeri) in Maricao State Forest, Puerto Rico.

A pair of Caribbean Coots (Fulica caribaea) eluding our telephoto lenses south of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.

One of the most fascinating things about birding the Greater Antilles is also the variation displayed in birds that we thought we were intimately familiar with from birding in the United States. Several species, such as Northern Mockingbird and American Kestrel, occur on the islands in distinctive and fascinating subspecies.

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius caribaearum) foraging in Guanica State Forest in Puerto Rico. Surprisingly, from a North American perspective, these birds were more common in open deciduous dry forest than they were were in agricultural or ranch land.

A Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola portoricensis), one of the most common birds in the Caribbean, was frequently seen at our camps. This individual was stripping palm threads for a nest at Balneario de Añasco.

After covering the southwest of the island extensively, we made the slow and arduous journey back to Fajardo. From here, we were determined to check out an even less visited section of Puerto Rico: the island of Vieques, part of the so-called Spanish Virgin Islands.

To be continued...

17 August 2013

Always on the Sunny Side

As I watched Caroline walk down the jetbridge, I felt a peculiar mix of emotions. My own plane was leaving in just a few hours time, and I could not wait to see the tropics again, but a larger part of me than I expected wished to join her flight instead. I could not bear to watch the flight leave, and as soon as she was out of sight, I began wandering the Denver airport alone. It was the evening of July 24th, and the sun was setting behind the Rockies to the west. Caroline had just spent the past two weeks with me winding down field work in the Dakotas, and her assistance was appreciated (dare I say, needed). After a slough of setbacks and delays and over-complications, I was finally able to enthusiastically explored Colorado with her, but one thing had become abundantly clear - two weeks was not enough. I sat in the tarmac messing on my phone and watching travelers pass until about 10:30 when I heard a familiar southern voice near me. It was my coworker from the Dakotas, Mike McCloy. Mike, a junior at Western Carolina University, had joined up with me for some birding adventures this summer. I was determined to go to the tropics one last time before starting my Masters in August, and Mike was at the airport to join me. We sat in front of the plane being readied for Miami and began discussing our plans. Mike, who had never left the lower 48 United States, was nervously excited to say the least. Our final destination was the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an island the size of Yellowstone in the Greater Antilles. We looked at our Caribbean field guides one last time, and I watched my phone until it lit up from a call to let me know Caroline was safely in Louisiana.

I was finally ready to head south.

The delirium of the night flights mixed with my memories from the summer. Dreams of watching sunsets in the North Dakota badlands, coming face to face bison, dodging rattlesnakes and negotiating the oilfields of the Bakken soon faded as the sun rose to my east. By the time I was awake enough to look out of the plane, I could tell that we were over United Kingdom airspace near the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was not much later that our plane began to descend, and the verdant north coast of Puerto Rico became visible. Our adventure was about to begin.

We landed at approximately 9 AM, and I quickly tried to adjust to learning how to negotiate the island's roads. Puerto Rican driving is tough, to say the least, but after some getting used to, I managed to adapt pretty well, even managing to spot one of our only Broad-winged Hawks of the entire trip while dodging traffic. We first headed to El Yunque, the legendary rainforest on one of the highest massifs on the island. The road wound its way up the side of the mountain, and we soon found ourselves negotiating a short, paved trail at the visitor center. The drive and trail exposed us to some of our first Antillean birds of the trip - Pearly-eyed Thrashers sang from the rafters, Bananaquits infested the trees and Puerto Rican Emeralds fed from nearby flowers. We gathered information about the forest for the next morning, and headed to Fajardo and to our camp, the Parque Nacional de Seven Seas.

Here, despite the hordes of people, we found some more exciting island birding. An adjacent coastal trail led us to some scrub and mangrove forest, where Adelaide's Warblers sang excitedly, giant lizards and anoles ran in the underbrush and Black-whiskered Vireos defended their territories enthusiastically. Antillean Crested Hummingbirds foraged in the thickets and our only Green-throated Carib of the entire trip gave us a brief (but excellent) view as it foraged in the trees, and some nice man gave us beer and Doritos.

The next morning, we headed back to El Yunque. There, we hiked the road before it opened and later hiked to the top of Pico de El Yunque. Needless to say, the views and the birds were spectacular, and some of the best I've ever seen in the Caribbean.

While hiking the road, we had a good chance to photograph many of the local Antillean birds. Birds that we hear about as being "the best of the best" Florida rarities like Bananaquit were common here, and such restricted mainland birds as Grey Kingbird were widespread and common throughout the island.

Grey Kingbird (Tyrannus dominicensis dominicensis) bringing an Anolis sp. back to the nest for the babies to devour. El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico.

Some of the highlights in this area were a brief heard fly-by Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata), one of the 50 rarest birds on Earth(!), and an incredible (but unfortunately backlit) Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo that come barreling out of the jungle, calling maniacally in front of us before bounding out of sight across the moss-laden branches.

Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo (Coccyzus vieilloti) in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico. The Lizard-Cuckoos were formerly considered to be a separate genus, Saurothera. You can hear a recording of their call here.

Not far from the above birds, we also had another fascinating Caribbean endemic - the Antillean Euphonia. Resembling one of my favorite South American birds of all time, the Golden-rumped Euphonia, the Antillean Euphonia was one of the most spectacular birds we saw the entire trip.

A beautiful Antillean Euphonia (Euphonia musica sclateri) in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico. The nape is a beautiful iridescent blue in the field.

After hiking the peaks and enjoying the biota of the rainforest, we returned to the lowlands just outside of Fajardo and prepared for our cross island trek the next day.

To be continued...

Mike McCloy swimming in Parque Nacional de Seven Seas, with the cloud covered peaks of El Yunque in the background.