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.

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