Puerto Ricans Band Together to Survey Birds in Hurricane Maria’s Aftermath

Amid power outages, devastated landscapes, and destroyed buildings, birders assessed the storm's avian toll on their Christmas Bird Count.

José Salguero places his hands around his mouth to make the sound go farther. His right hand clenching the homemade cane he now needs to walk up the small mountain, he emits the call of the Puerto Rican Screech-Owl. The only answer he receives is silence. He keeps walking the same path he has been walking every year, only to realize this time, the outcome will be different.

“What is happening here that the birds are . . . ?” He doesn't even finish the question. Omar Monzón already has the answer: “Maria.”

In September, Puerto Rico was hit with the most destructive hurricane in recent history. Hurricane Maria ripped into the Caribbean island along the southeast coast and, in so many ways, it hasn’t left. While most of the island again has running water, the vast majority of residents are still waiting for electricity to come back. Communications were lost for weeks and are still unreliable in some areas.

Even though Maria, and before that, Hurricane Irma, affected the whole island, birders like Salguero and Monzón weren’t about to let the devastation interrupt a long-standing tradition: the Christmas Bird Count, a 118-year-old annual event in which volunteers spread out across the Western Hemisphere to tally as many birds as they can. In addition to the count that took place in and around Fajardo on December 17, last month birders in Puerto Rico also surveyed birds at Cabo Rojo, Arecibo, Vieques, and, for the first time ever, in Ponce, San Juan Bay Estuary, and the small island of Culebra.

“The Christmas Bird Count is one of the best tools that we have to see how birds are doing, and it is a really good monitoring tool to see the recovering of the species, especially after an event like this. We were hoping it could be done, but with the infrastructure how it was, we knew it was going to be hard,” says Geoff LeBaron, director of the CBC for Audubon. “In most instances, what we see after natural events like hurricanes is that the environment sort of heals itself. Any birds or any creatures that are able to adapt and rebound, usually will recover. In Puerto Rico it was the whole island, so it will be very interesting.”

Salguero and his family woke up before 5 a.m. and drove the 30 miles from San Juan in darkness, as the street lights are still out, to help make sure the Fajardo CBC didn’t miss a year. Monzón, a biologist, has been walking one of the sections of the Fajardo count—which, like all counts, covers the area within a 15-mile diameter circle—with this family for several years.

(For a comprehensive review of the habitat damage caused by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, read Audubon's Rapid Assessment Report.)  

“This is our religion. The moment we finish one count, we are thinking about coming back the next year,” Salguero says, sometimes interrupting to yell the name of a bird he just heard. “The hurricane will affect the outcome of participants, and we know that, but we are scientists and we want to know the impact this had in the bird population.”

The 48-year-old biologist has started to lose his eyesight in the past five years. He has lost complete sight in his left eye and the right eye is starting to go as well. To identify each bird, he goes by their call or the description his wife, Carina Roig, details for him.

After an hour walking, mostly in silence, with his wife and two children, Jordi and Sergi, Salguero already know that not only are there less birds, but those that are present are not singing.

“Poor little birds are still desperate; just like us,” he says. “This is one of the most important reasons we have to come and do this: to have the data that would suggest short-term impact. We have information from the last 20 years to compare them to. This doesn’t mean the birds are dead. Maybe they are, but we have to come back in a couple of months and see.”

The forest might be quiet, but it isn't empty of birds. Salguero’s group counts 36 species, including one Cattle Egret, two Red-tailed Hawks, four Puerto Rican Woodpeckers, and at least one Caribbean Elaenia. They also tally multiple warblers, though not nearly as many as they're used to encountering. “We usually get tired of counting them,” Salguero says. “By the end, you have to really make an effort not to miss them because you get used to them.”

A usual year means counting 50 of these birds. On this windy day, they are able to see only 17 Adelaide’s Warbler, 5 Prairie Warbler, and 1 Yellow Warbler.

Like many bird lovers here, after Maria’s whipping wind and driving rain abated, Salguero ventured out to assess the damage and realized the vast number of downed trees could mean disaster for the birds who depend on them for shelter. A nonprofit organization, Birds Caribbean, is distributing bird feeders around the island to help maintain the bird population. 

“Since the hurricane passed, I was desperate to come out here and see what had happened. I tried calling my colleagues to see what was going on in their areas, and I couldn’t because of the communications being down,” Salguero says. “This is as important as going to FEMA and counting how many houses are down. We need to count the birds, and this is why we make these sacrifices, because we feel it is something we have to do."

Back at the Fajardo count, birders who had fanned out along the east coast before dawn started arriving around noon at the Las Cabezas Nature Reserve to compile the results. Emilio Font Nicole led the Roosevelt Roads count in Ceiba, which covered part of the former military base and the coast. “The impact of the hurricane is evident and severe in the habitat destruction; all the foliage is on the ground and the habitat is completely altered,” he says. His team saw only two Migratory Warblers and three American Redstarts, and, like Salguero’s group, they just didn’t hear much birdsong.

Joseph Wunderle, wildlife team leader and research wildlife biologist at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, has seen his share of post-hurricane counts. During this year’s Fajardo CBC, which he organized, he focused on El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. national forest system. Large swaths of of El Yunque are still closed due to destruction wrought by the hurricane, and scientists still aren’t sure how the devastation affected species that live there, such as the Puerto Rican Parrot. The forest is one of the strongholds of the bright green bird, which nearly went extinct in the second half of the 20th century.

“Some populations have declined, but not all that decrease is mortality,” says Wunderle, as birders arrived at Las Cabezas to hand in their tallies and tell their stories. “These birds will also move to other places with food.”

In all, the 10 groups recorded 82 species and a total of 1,934 birds—both low numbers for the Fajardo count, which started in 1994. (The previous year, for example, the Fajardo CBC reported 97 species and 2,579 individuals.) Common species such as the Nutmeg Mannikin, the Orange-cheeked Waxgill, and the Pin-tailed Whydah were completely absent. Meanwhile, Wunderle says, insectivores such as the Puerto Rican Tody and the Puerto Rican Woodpecker had increased when compared to previous years.

As with the Puerto Rican Parrot, Wunderle says more time is needed to understand the impact a hurricane of this magnitude has had on bird populations overall. Yet when asked about restoration efforts, and whether the birds and the places they depend on will recover, he doesn't hesitate to answer. “I am optimistic,” he says, smiling. Then he turns to welcome another group of birders arriving at the station, directing them to go add their results to the growing tally sheet.