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...