Puerto Rico: Birding a Tropical Island

Dates: This tour can be run upon request

Our Puerto Rico: Birds & Tropical Islands is a delight—an easy introduction to the birdlife of the Greater Antilles and a must for anyone who loves birding or exploring scenic tropical islands!

During our Puerto Rico adventure, we focus on finding the island’s 19 endemic birds while enjoying historic forts and lighthouses, tropical beaches and forests while having an enormously fun time! We’ll look for widespread Puerto Rican endemics as Puerto Rican Tody and Puerto Rican Bullfinch, as well as more difficult-to-see endemics like Elfin-woods Warbler, Puerto Rican Screech-Owl and Puerto Rican Nightjar. Each day we’ll encounter more common Caribbean species including Loggerhead Kingbird, Black-faced Grassquit and Caribbean Elaenia. This birding vacation offers up to 19 endemic bird species and a great mix of Caribbean specialty birds. We’ve good chances of seeing 18 of Puerto Rico’s endemics (all save the nearly extinct Puerto Rican Parrot), most of the Caribbean Regional species and realistic expectations of finding up to two quail-doves!

Puerto Rico, once a Spanish colony now a U.S. territory and popular holiday destination, is the easternmost and smallest of the Greater Antilles. Harboring 19 species of birds found nowhere else on earth, it’s as exciting as a birding destination can get. Additionally, as a US-associated Commonwealth, it features fine facilities with a good road system providing convenient access to its many forest reserves. Conditions that make birding across Puerto Rico—every habitat from windswept elfin woods to bird-rich thorn scrub—a comfortable and rewarding experience.

In addition to its beautiful natural history, Puerto Rico is rich in Spanish Colonial history. Its forts, military installations and 16 surviving light stations include 11 historic lighthouses built by the Spanish before U.S. annexation. Some of these Spanish constructs are revered national monuments, while several others are abandoned and endangered. Fortunately, interest in preservation has increased greatly in recent years and major restoration projects have been carried out across the country.

We’ll begin our Puerto Rican birding odyssey on the eastern end of the island staying near the Caribbean National Forest: “El Yunque”. Holding one of the largest remaining tracts of native forest in Puerto Rico, the forest holds some of the island’s least-known landbirds. Roads and trails bisect the forest providing access to both tall, wet Caribbean rainforest on the lower slopes of this mountainous region and to the restricted elfin forest of the higher ridges. Our time here should provide us with a good chance to see these habitats and their inhabitants. Unfortunately the rarest species, the Puerto Rican Parrot, has declined precipitously in the wild in recent years and sighting one of these is virtually impossible—though of course we’ll keep our eyes peeled just in case!

Traveling to the near offshore island of Vieques, we’ll experience one of the world’s brightest bioluminescent bays intimately and up close! Birds aren’t left out, two hummingbird species—Green-throated Carib and Antillean Crested Hummingbird—are notable. Add beautiful, remote shores and a host of Caribbean specialty birds and it quickly becomes obvious Vieques has much to offer the visiting birder.

Returning to the mainland, We’ll stop near Humacao to search for West Indian Whistling-Duck, White-cheeked Pintail, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Caribbean Coot in a nearby reserve’s marshes and impoundments. We’ll soon resume our journey to the charming and relaxed southwestern corner of the island. This corner of Puerto Rico is home to the awesome Guanica State Forest. To thoroughly explore the region, we’ll spend four nights at the waterfront, and thoroughly charming, Villa Parguera. The forest reserve lays atop a coastal range of hills and consistently produces an amazing variety of birds, including most of the island’s endemics. A short list would include Puerto Rican Emerald, Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Caribbean Elaenia, Puerto Rican Tody, Mangrove and Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoos, Adelaide’s Warbler, Puerto Rican Bullfinch and perhaps a Key West Quail-Dove. We’ll explore the area under darkness on evening or predawn visits for the uncommon and local Puerto Rican Nightjar. Near our lodge in Parguera, we hope to find endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, Antillean Mango, Puerto Rican Spindalis and possibly a few introduced species such as Indian Silverbill, Orange Bishop or Venezuelan Troupial.

 From here we’ll travel inland and uphill to our next destination, the Maricao highlands, home of the relatively recently discovered (1971!) Elfin-woods Warbler. Two mornings will be devoted to finding the warbler and other endemics such as Antillean Euphonia, Puerto Rican Tanager, Green Mango, Puerto Rican Screech-Owl, Puerto Rican Oriole, Puerto Rican Vireo, the scarce Puerto Rican Pewee and Puerto Rican Spindalis. We’ll explore other protected areas at lower elevations, like the Susua Forest, probably the best site in the Antilles for two species of quail-dove. Evening and/or predawn outings to the Maricao Forest will take us to areas where Puerto Rican Nightjar occurs.

We’ll end our tour of “The Island of Enchantment” with a stroll around Old San Juan with its colorful streets, interesting shops and historic forts, churches and lighthouses.

About the Birding Areas 

 Caribbean National Forest: “El Yunque” – One of the largest remaining tracts of native forest in Puerto Rico, the forest around Luquillo is home to some of the island’s least-known landbirds. A fine system of roads and trails bisect the forest and give access to both tall, wet Caribbean rainforest on the lower slopes of this mountainous region and to the restricted elfin forest of the higher ridges. Rain is abundant in this part of the island and we’ll be flexible in our plans to take into account the weather conditions. 

 Vieques Island – Vieques is a small island about 20 miles long and 3 miles wide off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. Archeological digs have found middens of Carib Indians so settlement goes back a long way. Vieques together with Culebra are sometimes called the Spanish Virgin Islands. Before the Navy protests made front-page news, Vieques was best known for having one of the last bioluminescent bays in the world.
The Navy has been good and bad for the environment. On the one hand the bombing area and the waste disposal sites create environmental clean-up problems and possible health problems for residents. On the other hand, the Navy has protected two-thirds of the island from urban sprawl, which is good for wildlife and plants. Mt. Pirata, now in the hands of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has virgin forests and many plant and possible bird species, that are threatened or endangered. The mangrove lagoons are intact and the surrounding coral reefs are healthy as there is little erosion and siltation due to second generation forests on Navy lands. Sea grass beds, which are important for sea turtles, are plentiful for no sewage or other pollution degrades them. The endangered Caribbean Brown Pelican successfully nests in the bombing area for the birds are more susceptible to human disturbance than noise. The bombing keeps people off the colony! With the cessation of bombing this past year, but with the area still restricted, turtles nested on the beaches and a flock of Greater Flamingos spent several months on the eastern end.
When all the dust settles, many hope that Vieques will recognize its unique position in the Caribbean and build on its natural resource heritage and not become another dime-a-dozen casino/golf course destination. Currently, Vieques is a rare gem where you can enjoy nature from the beautiful beaches to the Magnificent Frigatebird overhead, for it is one of the few islands in the Caribbean that still has its natural resources in tact. From a birding perspective, the island does not harbor any species that you could not seen on the main island. If, however, you just want to get way to an unspoiled subtropical island and enjoy exploring new birding territory then this is the place to visit.
“Hidden along the Caribbean coast is one of the most spectacular Bioluminescent Bays in the world. The mysterious blue-green light is created by micro-organisms which thrive in an environment uniquely suited to their needs. A trip into the bay on a balmy night is a magical experience. Fish flash by in dark water and a swim is like floating through stardust.” – Captain Sharon Grasso 

Humacao wetlands – A small refuge but one with a nice variety of habitats, including freshwater, brackish and saltwater ponds, lagoons and ocean shore. Though known as a good site for the shy and endangered West Indian Whistling-Duck and the similarly endangered Caribbean Coot, the refuge’s diked impoundments are highly variable in their quality from one week to the next. While we’ve seen the whistling-ducks only sporadically, the refuge works well to break up our travels. We’ll stop by and see what we can turn up. Birds should include various waterfowl, warblers and Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Nutmeg Mannikin.

Guanica Dry Forest Reserve – Most of the subtropical dry coastal forest in Puerto Rico has been cleared for farming and other interests by the island’s growing population. One of the last remaining patches of this threatened habitat is protected in this reserve. While small, Guanica is listed as a World Biosphere Reserve and is home to 11 of Puerto Rico’s endemic birds. The most elusive endemic is the rare, local and endangered Puerto Rican Nightjar. Puerto Rican Toad is also found here, one of the few breeding sites known for this endangered amphibian. We’ll enjoy several visits to this amazing reserve, including at least one early morning (predawn) exploration.

The Southwestern Coast – The southwestern corner of Puerto Rico is now mostly pasture and farmland, with the immediate coastal area dominated by extensive mangrove wetlands. These mangroves, although not terribly localized, are seriously threatened with development and is the last stronghold of the endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. If time permits, we’ll organize outings to a few of the small refuges in this corner of Puerto Rico, such as Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge and Boqueron Wildlife Refuge. 

Maricao Forest Reserve and highlands – During our time in the southwest, we’ll have ample time to explore the highland forests near the town of Maricao for several often-difficult endemic species, among them the Elfin-Woods Warbler. The forest reserve boasts some of the best wet mountain forest and cloud-forest habitat in Puerto Rico and holds a series of good trails for the warbler, as well as Puerto Rican Screech-Owl, Green Mango, Puerto Rican Spindalis along with the now familiar endemic pewee, lizard-cuckoo, tody and vireo. 

Rio Abajo State Forest – In the middle of karst country—some of the most rugged terrain on the island, limestone hills littered with fissures, caves and underground streams—the Río Abajo State Forest spans roughly 5,000 acres. The forest’s altitude ranges from 700’ to over 1400’ above sea level. Its steep-sided mogotes are draped with vines, covered by a jungle of tropical trees and huge clumps of bamboo.Walking trails wind through forested hillsides that a century ago were logged almost bare. In the mid-1930s, the US government along with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) stepped in to help reforest Puerto Rico. The remains of lumber roads cut by loggers and CCC workers now serve as trails. Witness to their successful efforts, Rio Abajo was selected by the DRNA for reintroduction of the Puerto Rican parrot.

Cambalache State Forest – Located amid the northern karst region of Puerto Rico, the Cambalache State Forest covers more than 1,500 acres. Home to over 400 plant species, including 15 endemic trees, native wildlife including birds, frogs, lizards and snakes abound within the forest.

Birdlife here includes over 55 species and one should expect 30-40 species on a good morning’s visit. Puerto Rico’s endemic birds are particularly well represented, spectacular examples include Puerto Rican Vireo, Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Puerto Rican Tody and Adelaide’s Warbler. Cambalache also acts as a primary birding location for Caribbean specialties like Greater Antillean Oriole, Antillean Euphonia, Key West Quail Dove and Red-legged Thrush. Migratory passerines winter and thrive in the forest. With luck, Bicknell’s Thrush may be found hoping along some of the forest’s interior trails. Other typical wintering migrants might include Northern Parula, Black-and-white, Cape May and Prairie Warblers. Along forest borders it’s possible to find native and introduced seedeaters like Yellow-faced Grassquit, Black-faced Grassquit and Nutmeg and Bronze Manikins. It’s likely that you’ll encounter local flocks of Red-masked or Monk Parakeets, both species established introductions from South America.

Tour Itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrival at San Juan’s International Airport. You’ll be met upon arrival by Kim Risen, your leader for this tour. We’ll transfer immediately to our hotel. While we’ll have a bit of time for sightseeing and shopping in Old San Juan on our last day, we recommend arriving a day or more ahead of the group or staying a day or more after the tour ends if you wish to more thoroughly explore the historic forts and their environs. 

e29After arriving at our hotel, we’ll have ample time to explore the grounds and nearby birding patches. An after dark search for resident Puerto Rican Screech-Owl is planned. Night Ceiba

Day 2: – Caribbean National Forest to Isla Vieques. After breakfast at the hotel, we may travel to El Yunque, The Caribbean National Forest, where we can enjoy the first of Puerto Rico’s endemic birds! A flexible day, depending upon weather we might hike trails amid the national forest, find ourselves birding forest edges close to the refuge offered by our vehicles or visiting adjacent lowlands neaAntillean Crested Hummingbirdrer the coast. Two hummingbirds of the eastern end of the island—Green-throated Carib and Antillean Crested Hummingbird—are attractive birds and we’ll look for them to make their first appearances. 

After checking out of our hotel, we’ll take a short flight to Vieques. Truly an enchanted island, Vieques offers much to its visitors. Our hotel overlooks the water and we’ll enjoy some birding and sightseeing after checking in. The evening hours are reserved for one of the world’s most interesting natural wonders—an excursion to the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay. 

From a national news story: 

“The first thing you notice is the wake—a luminous, emerald path of foam lingering below the stern. There are other boats here on Mosquito Bay at night, but you can barely see them—only their wakes, glowing like the lights of distant cities. Suddenly, there’s a flash of the bow. A startled porgy bursts through the water, leaving a comet-like trail. Then another. And another. Soon the water explodes with porgies, mullets and halfbeaks in an underwater fireworks display. Its biological classification is no longer a mystery, but just why Pyrodinium flashes is a puzzle that scientists have not yet been able to definitively solve. “The function is not well understood,” says Paul Dunlap, a specialist in bioluminescence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. “In other bioluminescent organisms- certain fish, for example we know they use it to attract prey or mates. Or to scare off predators.” Dunlap and most other scientists suggest that the later explains why dinoflagellates are bioluminescent. Some think that the organism flash as a “direct” warning to predators. Then there is also the “indirect” theory that they are signaling their predator’s predator. “Mosquito Bay is surrounded by mangroves and as you can see, their roots reach down into the water, ” she says, panning the floodlight’s beam across the tangled rows of vegetation. As the roots and fallen leaves of the mangroves decompose, scavenging bacteria produce vitamin B12, an essential nutrient for the dinoflagellates. Because of the opening to the sea is narrow, Grasso explains, B12 and other nutrients stay in the bay rather than being flushed out to sea. The shallowness of the bay means that the evaporation rate is high. With evaporation, the surface water becomes saltier and sinks to the bottom. This heavier water moves out to sea, leaving populations of Pyrodinium thriving at the surface. “These conditions are rare,” Grasso says. “People say there maybe six or seven places like it in the world.”

There used to be more. New Providence Island in the Bahamas had a bioluminescent bay, until its opening to the sea was widened and the dinoflagellates population declined. A bioluminescent bay in Hawaii suffered a similar fate. Others in the Caribbean have been lost due to industrial or boat pollution, the cutting of mangroves for charcoal, the overgrazing by cattle of nearby fields, which produces water-clouding runoff and the increase in artificial lights, which reduces the phenomenon’s brightness, according to Barabara Bernache Baker, a retired biologist who has worked hard to preserve the Mosquito Bay. “La Parguera used to be the most spectacular bay,” says Eduardo Cintron, a marine biologist with Puerto Rican department of natural resources. Now it’s “one-tenth as bright as Mosquito Bay.””

Night Vieques.

Day 3: – Isla Vieques to La Parguera. After breakfast we’ll travel along the southern coastline of Vieques, exploring portions of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. The beauty of this former military firing range is spectacular and Punta Ferro houses the weathered shell of its historic lighthouse. Depending upon how our morning goes, we’ll be able to enjoy lunch near the beach before our return to Puerto Rico.
After our short flight, we’ll spend the rest of our afternoon driving along Puerto Rico’s southern coastline enroute to Parguera. We’ll arrive at our hotel during the late afternoon hours and, after checking in, will enjoy a walk around the grounds. The endangered endemic Yellow-shouldered Blackbird often occurs on the grounds of our parador! After an early dinner, an evening outing to look for the endangered and rarely seen Puerto Rican Nightjar is possible. Night La Parguera.

Day 4: – Cabo Rojo, Laguna Cartagena and Guanica State ForestAfter breakfast we’re off for birding coastal areas around Cabo Rojo and Laguna Cartagena where we can hope for several rarely seen ducks including Masked Duck and West Indian Whistling-Duck (both rather rare) and also places where we can hope for various introduced species and other wetland birds. We’ll seek the endemic and scarce Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, scores of migrant shorebirds and brushy grassland species. Just about 10 miles east of our hotel lies one of the last remnants of

Puerto Rico Tody....cutest bird ever

Puerto Rico Tody….cutest bird ever

Puerto Rico’s dry forest, Guanica State Forest. Many of Puerto Rico’s endemics are to be found in the Guanica Dry Forest, including Puerto

Rican Tody and the stunning and vocal Adelaide’s Warbler. After lunch, we’ll visit the dry forest where we’ll look for the very fetching little Puerto Rican Tody and other denizens of the area, including Caribbean Elaenia and Pearly-eyed Thrasher. Early dinner and, after dark, we’ll listen for Puerto Rican Screech-Owl and Puerto Rican Nightjar if necessary. Night La Parguera.

 Day 5:- Guanica State Forest to the Maricao highlands. We’ll enjoy breakfast in the field today as we’re off to the highlands in the predawn darkness. We’ll head for the cooler hills to the north near the village of Maricao, where we’ll hope to see the little-studied Elfin-Woods Warbler, which is found at few accessible sites in Puerto Rico. The lush montane forest of Maricao State Forest and other protected areas near our hotel base will keep us entertained for hours as we search for Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo, Puerto Rican Emerald, Puerto Rican Vireo, Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Puerto Rican Tanager and Greater Antillean Oriole. The star attraction in the mountain region, however, is Elfin Woods Warbler, which was only discovered in 1971. After a full day of birding these beautiful highlands, we’ll return to Puerto Rico’s southwest coast for an enjoyable evening. Night La Parguera.

 Day 6:- Maricao Forest Reserve. We’ll rise early and enjoy a nice cup of coffee, locally farmed in the cool wet slopes around Maricao, before setting off on the trails in search of Puerto Rican Tanager, Green Mango, Puerto Rican Emerald, Antillean Euphonia, Loggerhead Kingbird, Puerto Rican Pewee and maybe a migrant warbler or two. A full day will give us the time we need to enjoy our surroundings and their inhabitants again—and perhaps to take a break in the afternoon—or we may wish to go on down the mountain to visit Susua State Forest, which has a population of nesting Key West Quail-Doves, more conspicuous now than in midwinter. A night excursion to a nearby forest patch is possible if we’ve still not seen Puerto Rican Nightjar. Night La Parguera.

 Day 7: – La Parguera, Guanica or Maricao Forest clean-upOur last morning devoted to the coastal areas of SW Puerto Rico will be spent searching for any species that may have eluded us thus far. It’s likely we’ll visit the spectacular Guanica State Forest before turning northward in the the central highlands. Another visit to the Maricao Forest Reserve is possible. Night La Parguera.

Day 8 – Casa Grande to Rio Abajo, Toro Negro and Cambalache State Forests.Our last full day will be spent exploring various forest reserves and parks. Rio Abajo and Toro Negro State Forests hold numerous trails that provide excellent birding. Toro Negro is also home to Puerto Rico’s highest point. Visits to the Cambalache State Forest and Arecibo Observatory are also likely. As we approach Puerto Rico’s north coast, we hope to visit several ocean overlooks for seabirds (terns, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Booby & White-tailed Tropicbird) and a few favorite small wetlands. Night near San Juan.

Day 9- After breakfast, we’ll make the leisurely trip to San Juan where we’ll have a bit of time to explore the attractions of “Old Town”. Our arrival at the International Airport and your return flights home is planned for 12:30 PM. Remember, be sure to plan your return flights with a departure anytime after 2:00 PM!