Category: Trip Reports (Page 2 of 23)

Birding Puerto Rico #3: San Juan

Greater Antillean Grackle are restricted to Caribbean Islands

Birding Puerto Rico: In and around San Juan

My trip to Puerto Rico, like so many others, started and ended in the capitol city of San Juan. Indeed, before I left the airport grounds in my rental car at 2:00am, I had my first lifer. Somewhere in tropical darkness, Greater Antillean Grackle were calling. They’re much smaller than the Great-tailed Grackle we’ve got in the United States, but equally creative and loud in their noise-making.

San Juan was founded by Spanish colonists in 1521. Today, the greater San Juan metropolitan area has about 2.5 million residents (about 75% of the total population of Puerto Rico). I was staying at a hotel near Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan), where the conference I was attending was taking place. It’s not a great spot for birding. I managed to see one lifer within walking distance of the hotel – a pair of Antillean Nighthawks feeding at dusk. Perhaps my best sighting in the city was a Palm Warbler at the nearby Parque del Tercer Milenio. According to eBird, it’s the first Palm Warbler ever seen anywhere on Puerto Rico in the months of June or July.

A pair of distant Antillean Nighthawks near Old San Juan at sunset

Parque Lineal Bayamon

There are many eBird hotspots in San Juan itself. The most promising looked to be the Parque Nacional Julio Enrique Monagas, the University of Puerto Rico Botanical Garden, and some parkland along the Rio Hondo called Parque Lineal Bayamon. I spent a morning at the Parque Lineal Bayamon. My first stop was a hotspot called Santa Rosa. It was a strip of park that had a nice tree-lined walking and biking trail. Scaly-naped Pigeon were posted in trees every hundred yards or so. Greater Antillean Grackle were all over the lawns. I got my lifer Pearly-eyed Thrasher along the fence, a juvenile considering its lack of a pearly-eye. A hummingbird known as a Green-throated Carib perched deep within a tree was also a lifer.

Parque Lineal La Cambija

There were more birds at another section of the park, called La Cambija. White-winged Parakeets are an established exotic in Puerto Rico. I’d seen them before in Los Angeles, but the birds here “counted” for my life list. A Zenaida Dove walked right past me along the trail. Amidst the many grackles, I noticed one shiny all-black bird that looked smaller than the rest. It had a shorter, pointier bill than the grackles. It was a lifer Shiny Cowbird.  Just when I was about to turn around and head back to my car, I caught a glimpse of a dark bird with yellow flashes in the wing and yellow at the base of the tail. It had flown from a palm tree, which orioles love, so I was excited about finding a Puerto Rican Oriole. For 15 minutes, I stood in front of a row of trees and could hear oriole chattering, but couldn’t find the bird. Finally, it flew out and back to the palm tree, where it disappeared. Once I got under the palm tree, I saw the oriole nest hanging from the fronds. After 10 minutes of waiting, with no oriole emerging and needing to get back to the conference, I gave up without getting a photograph.

On my last day  in Puerto Rico, I had about an hour at mid-day to make one last stop before going to the airport. I still had some target birds, but nothing that was close or easy. I decided to roll the dice and try to see a Blue-and-yellow Macaw. They’re big. They’re loud. And while they’re native to South America, they’ve established themselves in San Juan. I decided to try the Julio Enrique Monaga National Park, where there were occasional sightings of up to a dozen Blue-and-Yellow Macaw. There was also a bird tower on top of a hill there, which I thought might give me a good view to spot macaws flying around. The park was nice, though I mountain bike race made walking the trails precarious. At the top of the hill, I found a decrepit and closed bird tower. No macaws anywhere to be seen or heard. So I wandered back down to the parking lot. Just before I made it to my car, a tremendous squawk rang out 100 or so yards behind me. It was, no doubt, a macaw. Frustratingly, I never found the bird. 

All in all, the birding in San Juan was hot, humid, and productive. There weren’t huge numbers of birds, but good variety. Aside from Google Maps misnaming roads and misnumbering exits, getting around by car was easy.




Tundra Bean-Goose in L.A. County: UPDATED

Tundra Bean-Goose: far away from home, far away from my camera

The wacky Arctic winter in Southern California continues

You may recall that my 2023 started off with an improbable Snowy Owl in a residential neighborhood of Orange County. This was followed by a long-staying Yellow-billed Loon in San Diego County. It was as if Santa had brought along some Arctic birds in his sleigh and deposited them in Southern California. Not to be outdone, Los Angeles County gots its Arctic wanderer recently when a Tundra Bean-Goose was spotted in the Antelope Valley. The sharp eyes that saw it first were those of Jonathan Feenstra, who has seen an astounding 489 species in L.A. County. He saw it flush from at a place called Piute Ponds – a high desert freshwater wetland fed by treated wastewater from the nearby city of Lancaster. Piute Ponds are located on Edwards Air Force Base, and you’ve got to have permission to visit the site. Like many others, I don’t have permission. Because permission to visit is granted by the military, it’s a slow process to get it. Combine that with the likelihood that the bird would move on quickly, it didn’t seem like I’d have the chance to see the bird.

Scattered purple dots of Tundra Bean-Goose sightings

But this goose wanted to be seen. It moved from Piute Ponds to the nearby Lancaster Water Treatment Plant (WTP), where it hung around with other geese. The WTP is closed to birders, as well, so you had to hope it was visible from the perimeter fence. (The kind staff at the WTP opened the place for birders during the week, making for some happy, if stinky, birders). As often as not over the next 10 days, it was visible. I finally took the drive up to Lancaster 2 weeks after the Bean-goose was first spotted. Since it was a weekend, I couldn’t go inside. To my delight, the bird was still there, wobbling around a big field visible through the chain-link fence surrounding the water treatment plant. It was with two Canada Geese and a Greater White-fronted Goose. It was far away, but it was there. Astounding to wonder how this bird got here. Presumably, it stopped here on its way north, maybe from Mexico. What was it doing in Mexico?

As the eBird map above shows, Tundra Bean-Goose is not a common sight anywhere in the lower 48. There’s been just over a dozen birds spotted, spread from the West Coast to New York. So it was delight to get to see one.

Further Antelope Valley Adventures

Since I had made the drive, I decided to wander the Antelope Valley for a few hours. The Antelope Valley is a marvelous place (except in summer, when it’s outrageously hot and feels empty and bleak) (and often in winter, when it’s frigid and windy). In March, I assure you, it can be stunning. California poppies were beginning to show in the western end of the valley. On account of all of our rain this winter, it’s sure to be a super-bloom this year. The hills of the Tejon Ranch were green with happy vegetation. It was beautiful.

There had been reports of a flock of 15 Chestnut-collared Longspurs on private land in the western Antelope Valley, which would be a lifer. I drove to the general area, cruised some fields and walked around hoping to flush them, but I struck out. Some Horned Larks, a curious Prairie Falcon, and a late Ferruginous Hawk were pleasant consolation prizes.

From there, I headed to Gorman Post Road, a spot along I-5 near the Grapevine where California Condors and Golden Eagles can show up. Indeed, both had been spotted a couple days previous. The weather, however, wasn’t being that cooperative. Low clouds and light rain were steadily moving through. During a brief break in the clouds, some ravens and a Red-tailed Hawk were joined briefly aloft by a Golden Eagle. Ten years in L.A., and this was the first time I’d ever seen a Golden Eagle in the county. But there were no condors soaring. Still, it was a productive and restorative day in the Antelope Valley.

Blue sky briefly peaks out above the pond at Gorman Post Road

Update – July 2023

The Tundra Bean-Goose that has brought so many birders to Los Angeles County, and its aura of mystery, lives on. For background, the bird was first spotted in March at Piute Ponds, a high desert stopover point for many migrating birds. It then hung around the nearby Lancaster Wastewater Reclamation Plant until early May. In Mid-May, it was found five miles away at Apollo Park, one of those human landscape gathering spots for domestic geese and all manner of unnatural waterfowl offspring. It remained at Apollo Park, growing increasingly comfortable around humans, even approaching them hoping for handouts. Some said it walked with a limp. All reported its drooping and apparently injured right wing. It was last seen at Apollo Park on July 8th. 

Many assumed the bird had died, perhaps succumbing to its injury or not tolerating the increasing heat of the desert landscape it had made its home. Kimball Garrett sent a message to the LA Birders listserv on July 12th that noted the bird’s absence, and doubted that the bird would choose to leave such a cheeto-rich environment for browner and barer pastures. He concluded with “RIP bean-goose…although one can always hold out hope.”

The next day, ubiquitous LA birder Chris Dean re-found the Tundra Bean-Goose 60 miles due south of Apollo Park, in South Los Angeles. It was hanging around some Canada Geese and other creatively-jowled fowl at Earvin Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook. After initial questions about whether this might’ve been a second Tundra Bean-Goose, Occam’s Razor won out.  Apparently the orange markings on the bill were matched with photos of the bird from Apollo Park.

Magic Johnson Park has two big lakes, large expanses of short grass, and lots of humans. The Bean-Goose appeared to have lost its primary flight feathers on each wing. This prompted some speculation that the bird could not or would not have flown in such a condition, and might have been transported by a well-wisher (or deranged birder) out of the desert and into the megacity. But a message from Peter Pyle, an expert on waterfowl molt, indicated a post-migration molt is not unusual, and that primaries can be dropped in a day.

So the working theory now is that the bird flew to Magic Johnson Park on its own. Perhaps when its primaries grow back in, it will fly away for good. Or maybe some deranged birder will lay a popcorn path to lure the bird to Orange County. If it’s like most others who find themselves in Los Angeles and well-fed, I suspect it won’t leave until it can’t afford rent.



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