Saturday, May 29, 2010

Still in Puerto Rico: the natural treasures of Guanica and its mangrove forests

Photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

This is the fifth and last post about a birdwatching and hiking trip to Puerto Rico in March of 2010.

In search of a great beach...and tropical nature
After we left the town of Jayuya in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, we drove to El Bosque Estatal de Guanica, a 10,000-acre subtropical forest on the s.w. coast. We took a short hike on the southern side of the reserve, which is dry scrub forest with sun-bleached rocky soil and stunted, twisted trees. The dry forest gets only 35 inches of rain/year, compared to 15 feet of rain/yr in Puerto Rico's mountainous rain forests. 

The dry forest of Guanica
The dry forest of Guanica has been declared a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, with the highest bird diversity on the island - twice as many bird species as El Yunque rain forest. Guanica's birds include the Mangrove Cuckoo, Antillean Mango, Puerto Rican Tody, Greater Antillean Grackle, Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Puerto Rican Vireo, and lots more. The dry forest also has hundreds of interesting dry-adapted plant species, including cacti and spiny bushes and trees.   
A Pearly-eyed Thrasher in a short, stunted tree of Guanica's dry forest.

Mongooses and non-native mammals in Puerto Rico
The only mammal we saw on the hike was a mongoose. Mongooses from India were introduced to Puerto Rico to control rats, which were also introduced and are abundant. Rats are a big problem for sugar plantations on Puerto Rico, as well as native wildlife.  But rats are nocturnal and mongooses are active only during the day, so the effort failed (like most introductions of nonnative species). Now mongooses are out of control, with no natural predators on the island.  The  mongooses not only prey on native species, such as Puerto Rican parrot nestlings, but are major carriers of rabies.

Other introduced mammals in Puerto Rico include a population of rhesus macaques. The macaques cause problems for native birds by preying on their eggs. A population of free-ranging squirrel monkeys was also introduced when a research station was vandalized in the 1970s.

Alan's research base in the town of Playa Santa
After our short hike (very hot), we left El Bosque Estatal de Guanica for the small coastal town of Playa Santa, where my son Alan was living and working with a bird research team.

Alan, Ken, Matt, and Sadie in Alan's house in Playa Santa

After a quick tour of the house where the whole research team lives and plans their data-collecting forays, we went to the beach of Playa Santa. 

The best beach yet: Playa Santa
Playa Santa is a truly exquisite beach. The beach is forested in places (below).

Most of the trees on the beach had dark-brown termite tunnels running up their trunks and their largest branches (photo below).
There were picnic tables under a few of the trees, where we parked our stuff.
Matt, Ken, Alan, and Sadie

Mangroves grow in the shallow tidal waters of Playa Santa

The mangroves in Playa Santa's intertidal zone

Mangroves are trees that grow only in intertidal zones.  There are around 70 species of mangroves around the world.  With their roots partially submerged and partially in the air, mangrove trees provide habitat and food for hundreds of thousands of animal species, from birds to monkeys to crustaceans. The nooks and crannies of the submerged roots make excellent nurseries for vulnerable fish hatchlings.  At one time, most coastlines of the tropical world supported mangrove forests. With their intricate root systems, these forests encourage the deposition of sediment by slowing the flow of water; they also protect coastlines from erosion, storm surge, and tsunamis.  But in the past few decades, 35% of the world's mangrove forests have been destroyed. For information about protecting mangroves, see the website of the Mangrove Action Project.
The spatially-heterogeneous roots of these mangroves (at Playa Santa) provide unique habitat for wildlife.

The water at Playa Santa was turquoise and so shallow that we could wade out a hundred feet from shore. There were no waves at all.
 Matt, Alan, Ken, and Sadie wading

Intertidal life
While my family waded farther out, I looked for creatures in the foot-deep water.
I saw this Little Blue Heron foraging for fish, and saw her catch one.

I saw this thing, about 5 inches across.  I have no idea what this was, but it looked alive.

The thing above looked like the lining of a burrow, secreted by a marine worm. A lot of marine worms that burrow in abrasive sand secrete soft linings to their burrows. This lining (or "casing") might have worked its way to the surface, if the worm had died. I don't know!  I'm just guessing. If any of you readers know what it is, tell me!

This little mushroom-like thing was interesting, on the ocean floor in about 10 inches of water. I feel like I should know what it is, being a biologist. But I don't. Do you?  It was 2 or 3 inches tall. The stuff around it was seaweed of various species.

We found several sea cucumbers in the intertidal zone. They are echinoderms, related to sea stars (starfish) and sea urchins and sand dollars. They were all alive, and amazing.  I'd never seen one alive before. 
A sea cucumber in Playa Santa's intertidal zone.

Ken holding a sea cucumber

A bigger living sea cucumber, in my own hand

Sea cucumbers are not very active and are almost completely limp out of water. But most species can move slowly across the ocean floor on tiny "tube feet," scavenging for planktonand dead organic matter. In some parts of the world, they're extremely abundant. In China and s.e. Asia, sea cucumbers are popular as human food.

Leaving Playa Santa for San Juan.....and Roberto Clemente
So that was Playa Santa.We left in late afternoon, dropped Alan off at his home, and the rest of us drove back to San Juan to fly home.  In San Juan we stopped by the park that honors the famous baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto Clemente. Clemente grew up in Puerto Rico.  He died in a plane crash on a humanitarian trip to provide supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, in 1972. Ken has always been a huge fan of Roberto Clemente.
Ken with one of his heroes
Puerto Rico overall
I loved Puerto Rico because it was new, it was tropical, and I was with my family - we would have had fun anywhere. Do I recommend it as a travel destination?  I do, if you want a tropical island with both mountains and beaches.  It was easy to get to, easy to book, easy to navigate because most of the residents speak English, and many of them speak it very well.  Calls from the U.S. are not international, and P.R. uses U.S. dollars. Yet, it still feels like Latin America or the Caribbean because Spanish is the first language, and the culture is not the same as the continental U.S. For me, the culture was very different from home - the music, styles of dress, the food. That was great, I don't want to go somewhere just like home. So Puerto Rico was easy and comfortable, but different enough to feel that we weren't "in Kansas anymore."

We saw a lot of great birds in Puerto Rico. But if wildlife is your first priority, I'm not sure Puerto Rico would be my first recommendation.. The only native mammals living there now are bats. Islands in general have less wildlife than mainlands - at least that's true for smaller islands.

I guess I'm spoiled by the prolific wildlife of Costa Rica: white-faced capuchins, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, native squirrel monkeys, sloths, ant-eaters, coatimundis, agoutis, tayras, red-eyed tree frogs, poison-dart frogs, and some of the world's most impressive venomous vipers. If you're looking for spectacular tropical wildlife not far from the U.S., Costa Rica will provide more.

Just depends on what you're after.

Anyway, we had a great time in Puerto Rico.  If you're going, I do recommend all the places we stayed, which I've mentioned in my Puerto Rican posts listed below. In San Juan, we spent 2 nights at Coral by the Sea hotel, which was right on the beach, comfy and clean, an easy walk from restaurants, cheaper than its competitors, and 5 minutes from the airport. Its contact number is 787.791.6868.

Tropical nature! For me, there's nothing better.

My previous posts about our March 2010 trip to Puerto Rico:

Old San Juan: Steep, tropical, colorful

Exploring the tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico: El Yunque Caribbean National Forest

Puerto Rican beach pleasures, and the Jayuya Uprising

In Puerto Rico: Jayuya and the Toro Negro State Forest

See also Alan Kneidel's posts about Puerto Rico at

Keywords: Puerto Rico wildlife marine life mangroves introduced mammals rhesus macaques tropical islands Costa Rica

1 comment: said...

This is my first time I read your blog and it makes me feel good. I feel very proud of been a boricua, also you make a complete post, I like it. Great you have a wonderful time. God bless you all.