Friday, October 4, 2013

Birding Puerto Rico: A Sampling of Endemics (Puerto Rican Tody, Puerto Rican Tanager, Elfin-woods Warbler ...)

[Puerto Rico. September, 2013]

Puerto Rico offers some of the most unique birding on American territory. Ceded to the US after 400 years of Spanish rule (during which the indigenous population was exterminated and replaced with enslaved Africans), this tropical island of the Greater Antilles has been a part of the US since 1898 and its people have been US Citizens since 1917.

However, the fascinating history alone is not what draws the American birder to this corner of the Caribbean; rather, it is the rich endemism of the island that is its chief attraction; the full list of endemics is as follows:
  1. Puerto Rican Parrot
  2. Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo
  3. Puerto Rican  Screech Owl
  4. Puerto Rican Nightjar
  5. Puerto Rican  Emerald
  6. Puerto Rican  Tody
  7. Puerto Rican Woodpecker
  8. Puerto Rican  Flycatcher
  9. Puerto Rican Vireo
  10. Puerto Rican  Spindalis
  11. Puerto Rican Tanager
  12. Puerto Rican  Oriole
  13. Puerto Rican Bullfinch
  14. Yellow-shouldered Blackbird
  15. Elfin-woods Warbler
  16. Adelaide's Warbler
  17. Green Mango
(Species profiled in this post are bolded).

Moreover,  some of these species have only been recently discovered (the Elfin-woods warbler was described in 1972) and it is quite possible that future genetic studies into subspecies such as the Puerto Rican Pewee could well elevate them to full species status.

Let's start with Elfin-woods -- this is the newest addition to the New World wood warbler family:

The spectacular Elfin-woods warbler seen at Maricao

Classified as "Vulnerable", this rare warbler looks superficially like the Black-and-White. However, it has black cheeks and chevron-shaped streaks on its underside.


The other endemic warbler is Adelaide's Warbler -- named after the daughter of the first type-specimen collected by Robert Swift. It became endemic to Puerto Rico in 2000 when the subspecies found in Barbuda and St. Lucia were elevated to full species status (and named appropriately the Barbuda Warbler and the St. Lucia Warbler).

Adelaide's Warbler seen at Laguna Cartagena



Found at lower elevations and drier habitat than the Elfin Woods, this warbler has bright yellow undersides while its facial markings and uppersides recall Grace's Warbler.

Puerto Rican Bullfinch seen at Maricao

The next endemic is the Puerto Rican Bullfinch; it became endemic to Puerto Rico in 1929 with the extermination (via collection) of the last known individual from St. Kitts and Barbuda. This is a New World bullfinch completely unrelated to its namesake of the Old World (which really are finches; unlike this species which is taxonomically part of the Tanager family).


Next, the tich of the endemics --the Puerto Rican Emerald is a tiny hummingbird weighing merely 3 grams. It is found in the Southwest region of the Island.

Puerto Rican Emerald (female) seen at Maricao


The Puerto Rican Spindalis is a tanager widely found on the island. The males are brightly colored with distinctive facial markings.


They are exclusively frugivores and are important as seed dispersal agents in the tropical ecosystem of the island.


The other endemic tanager is the Puerto Rican Tanager -- not as colorful as the Spindalis, this tanager is an opportunistic feeder eating insects, fruit and other small prey.

Puerto Rican Tanager seen at Maricao


The next endemic is the Puerto Rican Tody -- Todies are exclusive to the Caribbean and are related to Kingfishers. Indeed, like Kingfishers, they nest in small tunnels dug into mud banks or rotten trees.

Puerto Rican Tody seen at Maricao

These tiny 4-inch birds eat insects, arachnids and even small lizards.

Puerto Rican Vireo seen at Maricao

Much larger is our next endemic -- the Puerto Rican Vireo -- a typical vireo, this endemic ranges widely on the island and is quite vocal.


There is but one resident woodpecker on the island -- the endemic Puerto Rican woodpecker. In the breeding season, this woodpecker is striking with a lot of red on the undersides; contrasting strongly with the black upperparts and prominent white spectacles. This species was observed at Maricao and is commonly found throughout the island.


The last endemic covered here is the Puerto Rican Cuckoo-Lizard. A large cuckoo, it is named after the lizards that typically form 75% of their diet. Like the Todies, the Lizard-Cuckoos are also exclusive to the Caribbean.

The small size of Puerto Rico, the excellent infrastructure and an enticing list of endemics are sure to lure many birders from the American mainland to this Caribbean bird-haven. If you go, be sure to tap into the local resources; I was fortunate to have Gabrel as a tour guide as this greatly accelerated finding target species and maximized "hits" over "misses".

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