Monday, July 20, 2009

Puerto Rico: El Yunque

Our next stop, on Tuesday April 7, could not have been more different (at least within the Caribbean) from the flat, scrubby terrain of Grand Turk. Puerto Rico, easternmost of the Greater Antilles, is large enough, and high enough, to capture the moisture-laden trade winds blowing off the Atlantic. The trades blow in from the east, and so eastern Puerto Rico is humid; in the Luquillo Mountains of its northeastern corner, surprisingly close to the large, American-style capital city of San Juan, is the only truly tropical rainforest in the United States.

Much of it is protected as the El Yunque National Forest (pronounced something like 'El Joon'-kway').

Unlike the other islands on our itinerary, Puerto Rico has endemic birds - some thirteen species, depending on your ideas about avian systematics. Our ship did not arrive until 10AM (the cruise directors obviously did not have birders in mind), but I hoped to make the best use of my time on shore to see some of the island's special birds.

El Yunque is a lovely place, lush and green after the dry scrub of Grand Turk, its trees festooned with bromeliads and other epiphytes. A note to my Malaysian friends: if you are in a rainforest, but are not sure which hemisphere you are in (an admittedly unlikely event), check for bromeliads (other than domestic pineapples, of course). If you find them, you are in the Americas - they ocur nowhere else.

The forest is graced with the delicate sprays of tree ferns. There are a number of species of tree ferns in the Puerto Rican rainforest, mostly members of the genus Cyathea (including, I think, the ones in this photograph, which are probably the widespread C. arborea). I am very fond of tree ferns -- I they are among the world's most beautiful and evocative plants -- and I am very glad that so many of them have had the decency to hang around for the last few hundred million years so that I could, eventually, enjoy them.

This strange-looking object if the inflorescence of a forest palm - or, at least, the stalks supporting the inflorescence, spectacular even without the flowers (palm flowers are not too exciting at the best of times, of course).

Birding rainforests can be hard on the neck. Eileen, who is not really a birder (she describes herself as a birdwatcher-watcher), prefers to enjoy the forest without risking injury to her cervical vertebrae.

Fortunately for us, considering the time of day, birds were vocal and active (though usually well out of camera range). We even heard (but, alas, did not see) the elusive Elfin Woods Warbler (Dendroica angelae), a bird only discovered in the 1970s.

This is a much commoner (and non-endemic) bird, a Pearly-eyed Thrasher (Margarops fuscatus), one of a number of interesting thrashers endemic to the West Indies (including, for this species, Bonaire, where I first met it a few years ago). This is a highly aggressive species, and has been a source of trouble for Puerto Rico's rarest bird, the Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata).

The parrots are almost impossible to see, but we did see this nest box, now abandoned, that had been erected for their use near the edge of the elfin forest.

Puerto Rico's most distinctive bird (at least taxonomically) is the Puerto Rican Tanager (Nesospingus speculiferus). It is the only member of its genus, and its affinities (like those of many other birds traditionally considered "tanagers" but which have turned out to be something else) remain unclear. Is it a tanager (it doesn't seem much like one)? I have no idea, but I was pleased to find that it is common, noisy and relatively tame at El Yunque.

The Scaly-naped Pigeon (Patagioenas squamosa), unlike the tanager, is widespread in the West Indies, but is not always easy to see. We saw several flying over the forest at El Yunque, and this one was considerate enough to pose at a reasonable (if not close) distance.

Both the Pigeon and the Tanager seemed attracted to cecropia trees, though perhaps not for the same reasons. The pigeons, presumably, seek out the fruits; the tanager, a generalist omnivore, might be seeking fruit, hunting insects, or just hoping for a good view of the sky.

On our way back to the boat we took a detour to the beach at Luquillo....

...Where the beachfront birds included common (and tame) Caribbean species including this Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita)....

... A Loggerhead Kingbird (Tyrannus caudifasciatus)...

...And several very bold Greater Antillean Grackles (Quiscalus niger), the bird Jamaicans call "kling-kling" in imitation of its bell-like calls.