A Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo snacking on a big centipede

Lifers and Endemics in Puerto Rico Woodland

In June, I took my first trip to Puerto Rico in 20 years. Unlike the last time I visited, this trip would include some birding. And there were a bunch of lifers waiting for me. Many of them could only be found in Puerto Rico, where there are 18 endemic bird species. Four of them are endangered. There are also a bunch of exotic species that have established themselves there. While I was happy to stumble across the exotics, I wasn’t targeting them (except for crossing my fingers on a Blue-and-Yellow Macaw). Instead, I was hoping to get a dozen of the endemics and whatever else fell my way as I explored the island. 

My first stop was a patch of native woodland about an hour’s drive from San Jose. called Bosque de Cambalache. It’s just off the main highway (22) in the northern part of the island near the town of Arecibo. It’s a mostly flat area of dense tree cover, with wide paths throughout. The entire perimeter loop is 4 miles long. I walked every trail on the map below except #6 and #7 over the course of 3 hours. It was hot and muggy, and quite productive. The intersections of the trails were often busiest with birds, but I had some nice finds in each area.


The parking area is right next to a picnic area, with some cleared grassy fields and nice edge habitat. I started there. A pair of Gray Kingbirds sallied about as I took in all the mysterious bird calls coming from the forest. Back at my rental car, a Black-faced Grassquit was attacking its reflection in my side mirror. Bananaquit were ubiquitous. Vireo song was also nearly constant. I tried out Merlin, which was awesome in Spain. But it confessed to not knowing the birds of Puerto Rico. It thought almost everything was a Bananaquit or a Black-whiskered Vireo. It was undoubtedly right sometimes, but I suspect there were also Puerto Rican Vireos in the trees, too. No glimpses of that endemic during this visit, though.

Of the island’s endemics, I saw the following six at Cambalache: Puerto Rican Flycatcher (like a small Ash-throated with plainer coloring); Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo (my favorite bird of the trip, thanks to the centipede scene that played out right before my eyes); Puerto Rican Tody (bright green ping-pong ball with a beak and a tail, wearing a red bib; its harsh, quick, repeated buzz became familiar over the course of the walk); Puerto Rican Woodpecker (poor looks at a bird high in the canopy); Adelaide’s Warbler (like a Grace’s Warbler with more yellow below; I had point blank views of a pair at the intersection of trails 1 & 2 by my camera’s focus failed me); and Puerto Rican Bullfinch (a big chunky sparrow-like bird with a red cap and throat).

There are 3 species of the elusive Quail-Dove on Puerto Rico, dense forest ground dwellers that are hard to spot. Two were occasionally detected at Cambalache – Key West Quail-Dove and Ruddy Quail-Dove. As I was walking along trail #1  between trails 2 and 4, I saw a bird flush from the trail edge into the forest. It was almost certainly a quail-dove of some kind, but I didn’t get a good look at it. I hung around the spot for 15 minutes, and eventually heard low, repeating “hooooos” coming from at least 2 different birds.  My best audio recording is uploaded to my eBird checklist. I am not 100% sure I got the ID right, but based on listening to other recordings, I put it down as a Key West Quail-Dove. A week before my visit, Key West Quail-Dove had been photographed at Cambalache, so it’s plausible. Bummed I couldn’t get eyes on one, though. 

Some of the other birds I saw included lifer Scaly-naped Pigeons, White-crowned Pigeon, and Zenaida Dove. A Magnificent Frigatebird made a flyover at one point. I spotted a single Loggerhead Kingbird. Red-legged Thrushes, sporting an awesome gray-black-orange color scheme, kept on eye on the trail at several spots. At the end of my walk, back near the parking area, a quartet of Smooth-billed Ani were moving around the trees. 

All told, I left Cambalache with 16 new lifers and super thirsty. If you’re looking for some good forest birding within an hour of San Jose, and didn’t make reservations or want to deal with the crowds of El Yunque, Bosque de Cambalache is a great birding spot.