We flew out of Rochester on a very cold, snowy morning, and as if by magic, stepped out that afternoon in San Juan to warm sunshine and welcoming people. That evening, we sat on a patio
overlooking the Atlantic with mojitos. This was a birding trip for us and for once, photography took a back seat. That makes a nice reason to go back, though there are a lot of other equally good excuses for a trip there next winter.
One highpoint of our trip was seeing the rare Puerto Rican Parrot. We walked about a mile to a research station and listened. For about 1-1/2 hours we heard them come close, then drift away and finally come into view in a tall tree where they fed on ripe seed pods. The bird is the focus of intense efforts to save its habitat. It is so revered we came upon a statue of them near El Junque National Forrest. They're not that big for sure.
In a week we tallied 104 birds including all but one Puerto Rican endemic. The variety was incredible. We saw hummingbirds like the Antillean and Green Mango, Green-throated Carib, and Puerto Rican Emerald. There was the colorful Antillean Euphonia. There were too many beautiful birds to have a single favorite. The Puerto Rican Spindalis below is my only bird photo of the trip.
We had a wonderful guide, Gabriel Lugo. We went westward from San Juan stopping at nature reserves, marinas and beaches. Gabriel's hearing is very acute, and he's extremely quick to recognize the birds' unique calls. He was often aware of what to look for before it revealed itself. Gabriel also knew where to introduce us to the many tasty Puerto Rican foods. The food is flavorful but not hot spicy. Plantains are prepared many ways; all are delicious. Mofongo is a plantain mash with a topping of rice, beans and shrimp/chicken or such. Asopao is a chicken and rice soup like gumbo. Arroz con Gangules is rice with pigeon peas. Very good. Sancocho is a wonderful stew. Lechón is a roast suckling pig and absolutely not to be missed. Try all of these.
Our first day took us near Arecibo where the famous radio telescope is located. Conceived by Cornell Professor William E. Gordon, the 1001 foot diameter reflecting dish has a large receiver suspended high above the dish. Gabriel took us there. There were also birds there. I hiked up the steep grade to the visitor center to get a look at this massive device that has led to so many scientific discoveries.
We continued our travel around the island with a stop at a remote ranch where we awoke in our cabin to the sound of multiple (endemic) Puerto Rican Screech Owls. We would never have found our way to this location alone. Afterwards, we stayed two days in Parguera where our room looked out on the blue Caribbean Sea with moored sailboats. From there we ranged into high mountains for some birds and then into seaside salt marshes and fresh water ponds. We did see some familiar birds that escape the cold northern winters such as teal, Northern Shovelers, coot, grebe and American Redstart. It was somewhat surprising that we saw very few gulls, only a Laughing Gull. The only endemic that we missed was the Puerto Rican Nightjar due to the only rain of the entire week.
All trips must come to an end. Gabriel returned us to the hotel at the San Juan airport on a Sunday after five days discovering both the birds and the island of Puerto Rico. We consistently met friendly, helpful people. We cannot praise Gabriel enough.
We had hoped to go into the old town of San Juan Sunday afternoon, but it was so crowded that the cabs could not get into the city. We rested up and planned what to do on our last full day. Our first stop was Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, or El Morro. It guards the harbor entrance.
Seen from the fort, it is separated from the old town by an expansive green field.
One iconic view of El Morro includes the lonely sentry tower overlooking the blue Atlantic to the left and the Bahia de San Juan to the right. This massive fort was a progression of additions rising higher and more prominent each time.
Walking toward the old town one finds narrow streets of blue cobble stone. The narrowness has one benefit in that one side is usually in the shade. The sun can be very intense. Most of the buildings are painted in pleasing earth tones. Our route from El Morro was in the direction of the Cathedral de San Juan Batista. Along the way we discovered small shops and an art institute on Del Cristo Street. As we neared the cathedral, the hour approached noon; it had been a long time since breakfast. We were about to make a delightful discovery.
Nearly opposite the cathedral was el Picotea in the open air courtyard of the hotel El Convento. Formerly the Carmelite convent begun in 1646, this is now one of the premier hotels in the Americas. The food reflected the prestige of El Convento.
As we lunched, we concluded that we had to stay in this hotel on our next visit to San Juan. A brief exploration on our way outside found this graceful archway with a view towards the courtyard. How could anyone pass a chance to stay in this hotel? But the rest of the old town called us, and we stepped outside to visit the cathedral (below).
The Cathedral de San Juan Batista is a rather simple architecture. Construction on this location was begun in 1521, but war and hurricanes took a toll such that the current facade dates from the 1800s. The body of Ponce de León resides in the transept.
We continued our exploration passing through the last remaining city gate of the old town's wall to find a view on the Paseo de la Princesa seaward towards El Morro. It was nice to find a shady walkway with welcoming benches for brief pauses. If you look closely in the distance you can see the lonely sentinel tower on the fort. The old town is really a very compact district. We hopped on one of the trolley cars to ride to our last destination, the capitol building. El Capitolio's design is a neo-classical revival style with breathtaking Italian marble in the main floor. The rotunda has a facade tracing the history of the island plus a dome decorated in mosaics that is aglow in natural sunlight. See below:
Leaving the capitol, our time in San Juan was nearing an end. The next morning at a little after 8 am, I looked out the left window of the aircraft and had a last view of San Juan.
So far, all of the attention has been to those iconic penguins, their little chicks and the other big birds, like albatrosses, that are found in the Falkland Islands. Beyond those well-known subjects, there are some really interesting little birds. Let's dive into the ones that deserve some attention.
The Pied Oystercatcher is a striking shorebird because of its eye and the black and white plummage.
Another bird that immediately reminded me of home was this Austral Thrush (previously called the Falkland Thrush). Of course, it is a cousin of the American Robin. It is perched on the Gorse, possibly using it for nesting cover.
I recall clearly my first sight of the Long-tailed Meadowlark. We were hiking up a hillside towards an albatross site, when I saw this brilliant scarlet color among the Diddle Dee scrub bushes. Days later, I was able to get much closer and see it clearly.
This was a bird I did not anticipate in my pre-trip planning. One day I arose before the others and hiked up a hill to find one male singing with great energy a typical sort of meadowlark song. It was a surprisingly loud sound from so small a bird.
There was the small and elusive White-bridled Finch (previously called the Black-throated Finch). It was usually hanging on to some thin stalk of Tussock Grass and whipping about in the wind. You can see on its sides, how the wind is unsettling the breast feathers.
One day, the question was whether I had seen the Rufous-crested Dotterel. What is that? I learned that the bird it is quite shy and hard to approach, and is attractive, too.
There were more familiar species too. The Common Snipe was a pleasure; it often came quite close and lingered. I've never been that close to a snipe here in the USA. It's quite beautiful.
It's been suggested to show your best photos first to capture the viewer's attention. I've saved my most interesting small bird for last. (Actually, it is my favorite of the entire trip to the Falklands!)
When first seen in a pond on Sea Lion Island, the brilliant red eye of the Silvery Grebe startled me. The behavior of the two adults only increased my interest, as they sheltered two chicks under a parent's wings, while the other adult foraged for small invertebrates in the fresh water pond. Note the small bit of food in the bill of the parent approaching the exposed chick. Oh my!
These grebes so captured my attention that I returned three times. They were not the least bit wary of humans.
I learned that they build a floating nest in the rushes bordering the pond. The chicks grow rapidly and begin to dive for food while still in their fluffy down. This chick stretched to reveal a webbed foot perfectly suited for strong swimming but useless on land.
I had a book describing the flora and fauna of the Falkland Islands. These grebes were included in the illustrations, but they could not capture the brilliant colors nor the fascinating bahavior exhibited. These birds are my strongest memory of the trip.
I realize that all of the birds described so far in the Falkland Islands, well, don't fly in the air. Penguins fly in the water. So, it is time to highlight the conventional flyers. There were some I expected to see, and a few surprises.
The first birds to "greet" us at Saunders Island were a mob of Striated Caracara. They are pretty unafraid of humans and always on the lookout for a hand out. This guy was just feet away.
Our hosts often feed them, and they always finished off any leftovers from our meals. That may offend some, but it does reduce their preying on the hapless penguin chicks. When one of our members left his tripod outside unattended, one Caracara began to chew on the padding on the tripod legs. They will try to eat backpacks, hats and just about anything other than a rock.
The other bird that preys on the nesting birds is the Skua.
When I walked too near one of their ground nests, the male got very aggressive.
Both Skua and Caracara regularly harass the nesting birds with close flight passes, as seen below. This is a colony of King Cormorants. If the parent is startled and lifts up, the chick may be grabbed. They will also form a mob to overwhelm a given nest.
Among the most graceful, elegant flyers are the Black-browed Albatrosses. They are big - 31 inches long with a whopping 95-inch wingspan. Imagine one effortlessly soaring just a few feet over your head. That is one of my most unforgettable experiences of the trip.
They were not shy and would often approach closely, if I was sitting on the ground. If resting along a trail, they would silently mark your passing with a stoic gaze.
When we arrived, many of the Black-browed Albatross were beginning courtship. They would posture and preen. It appeared that the pair bonds were not always firmly formed yet, as one would notice a rival and decide to pursue that opportunity. They all looked alike to me, but the birds obviously saw more than I did.
But, the bonds do become firm and nesting begins with construction of a nest. When finished, the nest often was so uniform (as seen below on right) that it could have been formed on a pottery wheel.
Now, the albatross is a famous wanderer of the open ocean, only coming to land to breed. There is another fabled wanderer that did make a few brief appearances along the shore. I have to share my only good image of a Giant Petrel. They are nearly as big as the above albatross.
Notice on the top of the bill that there is a prominent tubular passage; that is a salt gland which functions to desalinate ingested water. The salt is expelled from the passage. Wow!
Now, let me close with two birds that I did not expect to see, and whose plumage and behavior captured my interest. Early in the trip, I saw this King Cormorant fly past me with a large clump of debris headed for a densely populated rookery.
Like all cormorants, they are fast on the wing. The orange pad above the beak - called a caruncle - was striking. Getting close to one, there was more to admire. There was a blue sheen on the head below an upturned crest and a very blue eye ring.
I became driven to capture more flight photos of this bird streaking back to the nest with a treasure of nesting material. It proved difficult. Even though they followed a pattern, the sheer number of birds and the small variations in its path, made it hard to anticipate the millisecond when the bird was just right. Cannot imagine doing this with slide film; it took a hundred images to get a few good ones.
At the end of the nesting season, there are totally bare areas that the cormorants have stripped clean down to the roots.
There was another cormorant whose nesting behavior made it impossible to observe closely. The Rock Cormorant nests on tiny ledges in otherwise vertical rock faces. We saw only one such place across a finger of the sea bounded by two such vertical walls. It was about 80 feet straight down to the sea below. Oh, and it was very windy. I treated the edge of the drop with caution.
There must have been some similar ledges on our side, as there was an adult and juvenile on the edge of the drop. Again, they were not the least wary of us.
This basically covers all of the larger birds, leaving some smaller birds that offered more unexpected delights. They will be the subject of the next post.
Magellanic Penguins are all black and white, save a bare patch between eye and beak where pink skin is visible. They may be the more sensible of all the lot. They nest underground so that the Skuas and Caracara cannot swoop down to seize a chick.
Ideally, they form nest burrows under Tussock Grass, but as livestock were introduced on the islands, the favored grass declined, and they went to nesting in bare ground or even under introduced shrubby plants like the yellow flowering Gorse (Ulex europaea). This pair seem to have found a combination of grass and Gorse.
The Magellanic avoided the acrobatic displays of the Gentoo when coming ashore, but sometimes did ride the wave crest. Perhaps that gave them some degree of visibility to chose a safe landing spot.
In early December, the Magellanic were at the time to hatch eggs, so there was often a watchful adult at the face of the burrow casting one eye to examine any possible interloper. One needed to be watchful for these shallow burrows as it would be easy to trip on one, or worse to collapse the ceiling, spelling doom for the nest.
The Magellanic were the quiet, retreating member of the community that carried on their lives mostly unseen except when coming and going from the sea. The Rockhoppers were a much more demonstrative presence. They were the smallest of the penguins we saw, and also the most fierce at times.
The Rockhopper is a very photogenic bird that will often approach quite closely when you take a seat and wait calmly. Above the brilliant orange eye is a sulfur yellow eyebrow that extents into a trailing plume; the top of the head resembles a punk rocker's haircut. The bill is sturdy and capable of inflicting a lot of pain.
The Rockhopper name is directly linked to their preferred nesting habitat. They choose elevated, rocky coasts where they can be seen coming ashore among crashing waves.
Up these steep faces they travel using only their short legs to propel them. They've been doing this for centuries such that in places, one can find grooves in the rocks from thousands of tiny penguin claws. It is quite amazing that these little legs are sufficient to seemingly propel them to heights more than their body length. I would not have attempted many of these climbs.
Having reached the heights, Rockhoppers form dense nesting colonies that give a very scenic view of their sea.
For all of their pugnacious behavior, these birds exhibit a very tender courtship with much grooming and caressing. It would be easy to anthropomorphize their behavior.
On some occasions, I saw a third party get close, and most often the pair both reacted strongly to defend their bond. However, in a few cases, it seemed the bond was quickly fractured by a more attractive suitor. I guess they were still shopping for the best offer.
The whole purpose of this begins with an egg. The grooming seemed to continue through this stage.
I found a good field guide for the Falklands that included a chronology of the Rockhopper hatching. The pair jointly incubate for about a week. Then they alternate fishing over two weekly cycles, ending with the female present to hatch the two eggs. Then both share feeding and fishing. The chicks grow quickly.
There was one other Rockhopper behavior which was seen at three locations - bathing. In two places, it was really showering. Really. In all cases, a hillside spring offered fresh water. The shower occurred when the water fell over a precipice offering a good landing spot. It was amazing. This pair were obviously having a grand time.
It was difficult to leave this spot when the clock told us we needed to rendezvous with our ride back to camp. The personality of these smallest penguins just capture your attention.
This concludes my description on the expected penguins of the Falkland Islands. King, Gentoo, Magellanic and Rockhopper. Each was fascinating in some way. There was one unexpected penguin that was seen in two separate locations. The Macaroni Penguin is uncommon there with a few breeding pair reported among the Rockhoppers. We only saw lone individual looking rather lost.
I went expecting to see penguins, and not sure what other treasures would be revealed. These unexpected discoveries brought greater wonder than even the Rockhoppers in the shower, or the Gentoos popping out of waves. I will get to those in future posts.