Most day-trippers visit only the busiest sections of the reserve and leave El Yunque seeing very little wildlife, yet the forest is home to over thirty species of amphibian and reptile, eleven types of bat (the only native mammal) and 68 species of bird – it’s the last that get naturalists most excited. Early morning (before 10am) and late afternoon (after 4pm) are the best times to hear and see them.
El Yunque’s thick, primeval forest is a precious ecosystem of 240 tree species and four distinct zones: 70 percent of the reserve is smothered in tabonuco forest, while higher up is Palo Colorado forest, sierra palm forest and at the very top, cloud or dwarf forest, dense vegetation that rarely tops 3m. Tucked within this greenery is the Puerto Rican green parrot or Cotorra Puertorriqueña, the most celebrated and endangered inhabitant of the forest. When the Spanish arrived in 1508, it was estimated that one million parrots lived on the island: after years of hunting, deforestation and devastating hurricanes, there are thought to be around 50 in the wild, all here in El Yunque (up from a record low of 13 in 1975), thanks to a rehabilitation programme founded in 1968. As you can imagine, you need the eyes of a hawk and lots of luck to spot one. The parrot has a distinctive bright green colour with a red forehead and is usually around 12in long. Nesting season runs from February through to June.
You should have more luck with the Puerto Rican tody (san pedrito), a small bird with bright green feathers, lemony white breast and scarlet throat, and the bananaquit (ciquita), a tiny warbler with a black-and-white striped head and yellow breast. You might also hear the “cow cow, kuk krrk” of the Puerto Rican lizard cuckoo (pájaro bobo mayor), which feasts on lizards and has a long striped tail. You’ll find plenty of information on other bird species in the forest visitor centres.