January 13th, 2011

Puerto Rico: Yellow-shouldered Blackbird

As mentioned in the recap of my third day in Puerto Rico, I left something out. I thought that a fantastic experience with a critically endangered bird deserved its own post.

There were still a handful of endemics that I hadn’t seen, but one loomed larger than the rest – Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. There may be no more than 3000, all in southwestern Puerto Rico and a few offshore islands. The best place to see them is the small town of Parguera. The traditional location is the Parador Villa Parguera, where the birds would come looking for food. But from what I’d read online, the best spot to see them currently was a small hardware store just down the street.

Continue west on PR 304 past the parador, keeping the water and mangroves on your left. In not very far, you’ll see a store on your right with a sign next to the road saying Ferreteria (hardware store). When you pull into the fairly large gravel parking lot, the store will be on your right, with a fence and tree to the left of the building. I knew I was in the right place as soon as I pulled into the parking lot; I could hear the distinctive calls of icterids. Lots of them.

Before I could even get out of the car, I saw some dark forms fly up into the tree right in front of us. Some of them were doing their best to hide their namesake field mark, but these were definitely Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbird

A closer look revealed a water fountain behind the fence and many birds foraging on the ground where, presumably, seed had been scattered for them. The birds would alternatively feed, drink and bathe on the fountain, and fly up into the tree to preen.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds on fountain

There were dozens of birds there, and every few minutes more would fly in from the mangroves across the street. Male Red-winged Blackbirds in flight, with their red epaulets glowing, are a stunning sight. Their yellow-shouldered cousins are every bit as distinctive and beautiful on the wing. I tried to capture some in full flight, but they were too fast. I could only get some preparing to land.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds landing and foraging

But as wonderful as the blackbirds were, there were other species present at the feast as well. There were a few Greater Antillean Grackles, Common Ground-doves, House Sparrows, and my first Black-faced Grassquits. Unfortunately, there were also some Shiny Cowbirds. Well, fortunate for me since they were a lifer, but bad news for the blackbirds. In addition to habitat loss, the blackbirds are threatened by nest parasitism from the cowbirds. The Shiny Cowbird, like their Brown-headed cousins, will lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and leave the unwitting hosts to raise the cowbirds, often at the expense of their own young.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds and Shiny Cowbird on fountain

Female Shiny Cowbird and her unwilling hosts

I’ve got to admit, though, the male cowbirds are indeed shiny (in the literal sense, not in the sense Malcolm Reynolds would use the word). I could pick out a few in the mass of feeding birds, but couldn’t get any good pictures of them. This heavily cropped pic is the best I got.

male Shiny Cowbird

This may not have been the most natural place to see such great birds, but I can’t really complain about the great, close observations of an endangered species. It was very weird to consider that the 50+ Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds present represented a significant percentage of the world population.

On to my last day in Puerto Rico

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January 11th, 2011

Puerto Rico, Day 3

December 10

The failure to see an Elfin-woods Warbler at Maricao yesterday meant another trip there this day. Since we knew exactly where we were going, we made a little better timing and arrived to find that, while still windy, it was much less so than the day before. Optimistic, we went through the gate and passed the ruins, just as before. But this time, we took the trail branching off to the right, hoping it may be more open and sheltered from the wind. But the birds were still hard to come by.

We hadn’t gone too far when we decided to turn around; it seemed like a better play to hang around an open spot like the ruins and hope for a mixed flock to pass by. But on the way back, some Puerto Rican Tanagers could be heard calling. We eventually saw a few, along with a Puerto Rican Bullfinch and a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. But a different-sounding chip caught my attention. It took a little time and effort to find the bird making it, but when I did, I was face-to-face with a gorgeous Elfin-woods Warbler. Well, it was eye-level and less than ten feet away, but it was still fairly obstructed. But my wife was able to get some identifiable pictures.

Elfin-woods Warbler

Elfin-woods Warbler

Yes, I'm shy. Why do you think no one found me until 1968?

There was a little time before lunch, so I thought there would be time to stop at the Susua State Forest. The new Birdwatchers’ Guide to Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Caymans claims it’s a good spot for Puerto Rican Pewees. But it also gives incorrect directions, which had us driving several miles down the wrong road. We finally got there, only to find the gate locked. We walked in a little ways, hoping that the trails mentioned in the guide would start shortly inside the gate, but no luck. There was very little shade from the bright noon sun, so we left to grab something to eat. The only birds were a Northern Mockingbird, Puerto Rican Spindalis, and a heard-only Adelaide’s Warbler.

Later on, I wanted to try for some waterbirds at Laguna Cartagena, a National Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes from Parguera (and that long only because it’s off a dirt road that you don’t want to drive too fast on). The main parking area was found without a problem, but for some reason I had thought open water would have been visible from near the entrance. Nope. A calling Sora meant that there was some water nearby, but vegetation blocked all views. We walked down the trail, hoping for a good vantage point somewhere. Along the way, we were entertained by a couple of Puerto Rican Todies and some Smooth-billed Anis that sounded like something out of Space Invaders (as my wife put it).

Very shortly, we came across a very nice observation tower, complete with a birding couple from Ohio. They had been in Puerto Rico for a few days longer than we had, but until then hadn’t seen another birder. And they were the only ones I saw. Sad.

But we did see lots of birds, including Great and Cattle Egrets, Green and Great Blue Heron, lots of Common Moorhens, and a single Purple Gallinule. Ducks were represented by Ruddy, Ring-necked, and Blue-winged Teal, but not the hoped for White-cheeked Pintail. But I was very glad to see that the two visible coots didn’t have any red on their frontal shields, making them Caribbean Coots, and a lifer for me.

My wife and I bid adieu to the other couple and were walking away from the tower when they called down “West Indian Whistling-ducks!” I had seen them previously in the Caymans, but I wasn’t about to pass up another chance to see “one of the rarest ducks in the Americas” (Neotropical Birds). After a hurried ascent and look through the scope, there they were: two West Indian Whistling-ducks swimming out in the middle of the water.

I’ve skipped another stop that was made, but it deserves its own post

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January 4th, 2011

Puerto Rico, Day 2

<< Day 1

December 9

The bird I wanted to see most in Puerto Rico (besides the parrot, of course, which wasn’t going to happen) was the Elfin-woods Warbler. This little sprite of the high altitude forests wasn’t even discovered until 1968. That should tell you that it’s not the easiest bird to find. The best place to see it is around the Forest Service compound in the Maricao State Forest, so that’s were we headed on our first full day in Puerto Rico.

It took about an hour to get there from Parguera. I had read on other trip reports that it can be tough to find the road from Sabana Grande that goes up to Maricao. I can attest to that – we had a map on my iPhone, and still missed it! That road is very steep and winding, so you can’t drive any faster than the posted speed limit of 25 mph. So allow plenty of time to get there.

We pulled in about 9:30, a little later than I’d have liked. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered if we had gotten there any earlier; the weather was not cooperating. It was a little foggy, with a constant, strong wind. The wind made it almost impossible to see or hear anything. We took the trail up past the gate at the electric station thing. It probably took over 15 minutes to even see the first bird. It was a quick-moving thing that could have been a Puerto Rican Vireo, but I’m not sure. A pair of Puerto Rican Spindalis were much more cooperative. The male was so much more vivid and pretty than I had been expecting. There was also a Cape May Warbler and Gray Kingbird.

Before leaving, I tried birding the area around the forest service buildings. I kept hearing birds in the trees above, but was only able to catch quick glimpses. After what seemed like forever, I determined they were Puerto Rican Tanagers. That was my second lifer of the day, but only the fourth species overall. In two and a half hours. I can’t recall a more frustrating birding experience. The wind was that bad.

We then drove north toward Maricao to get some lunch. Afterward, I thought we’d check out the grounds of Hacienda Juanita, a bed-and-breakfast type place that is known for having some good birds. When we pulled in, we didn’t see a single person or car there. It was a little odd, but I walked around the parking area and down a little trail. In addition to the ubiquitous Gray Kingbird and Bananaquit, I finally got decent looks at the two endemic hummingbirds – Puerto Rican Emerald and Green Mango. It was a good thing, too, I wouldn’t see either again.

Hoping the wind had died down, we gave Maricao one more try. It was indeed less windy, and I very quickly came upon some tanagers that were much more obliging.

Puerto Rican Tanager

But even better was this beauty that was accompanying them.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker

The Puerto Rican Woodpecker is one of the most striking birds, not to mention woodpeckers, that I’ve ever seen. For my money, they come pretty close to rivaling the Red-headed Woodpecker.

Further down the trail, I got decent looks, but not photos, of Puerto Rican Tody and Puerto Rican Bullfinch. But it was still fairly quiet. At least it was until I was almost back to the car. Just past the gate is a clearing with the ruins of an old house. When I got back there I could hear tanagers. I’ve read that PR Tanagers are often the nucleus of mixed-species flocks, and that was certainly the case here. In addition to the tanagers I spied another tody and woodpecker, along with several Bananaquits. I got another endemic lifer when I spotted a Puerto Rican Vireo amongst them. But I was really hoping this flock would contain an Elfin-woods Warbler. A Black-and-white Warbler got my hopes up for a second, being the same colors as the Elfin. At one point, I did see a very likely candidate, but I did not see the face or streaking underneath. But even with extensive pishing, I never got more than a single, quick glance.

But even without the warbler, this was a much more productive visit. It seems that the key is to bird here when there’s little wind. And to run into a mixed flock.

I also wanted to try for the nightjar at Guanica State Forest again. But this time, we got to the gate at the end of PR 334 before dark, around 5:30. It was locked, as expected, so I parked and walked up the road for a ways, birding while it was still light enough to do so. I heard a Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo, but couldn’t entice it out where I could see it. I had much better luck with Adelaide’s Warbler. I wish every bird was this responsive to pishing!

Adelaide's Warbler

When it was getting dark, I stationed myself at a bend in the road, about a quarter mile from the gate. I was hoping this was a good spot to listen for Puerto Rican Nightjars and Screech-owls. At 6:21 I heard a single Puerto Rican Nightjar, but it sounded fairly distant. But I never saw one, and didn’t even hear an owl, despite using some playback (I did not play a call of the nightjar, a critically endangered species).

On the plus side, mosquitoes weren’t an issue. They would have been, however, without my patent-pending Personal Mosquito Deterrent System, commonly known as bats. Once it got dark, I could hear them flying around me and see them pass through the beam of my flashlight. I was very grateful for their services and hope they were well compensated.

Adelaide's Warbler

I wish every warbler were as easy to see and photograph as Puerto Rico's endemic Adelaide's Warbler

Day 3

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