24 August 2013


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 AƱasco, 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.

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