Cuba - Birds & Culture
21st March - 5th April 2010
Trip Report by Andy Mitchell
Everyone will have their own memories of a special trip and this is just an outline of our time away, tinged with my view of things. I had a great time thanks largely to all of the guests being enthusiastic travelling and birding companions. That we had a superb and informative trip was down to some great help from our Cuban friends; Joel the driver – always on time, careful and cheerful; Raydalí the Havanatour guide with her knowledge of Cuba and its history; and finally the bird guides – especially my old friend Angel in Zapata.
Attached to this is our final bird list and whilst I appreciate that not everyone saw all the birds, I hope that you enjoyed the species you did see. The total came to 168 species (an excellent total) but that includes three species that were heard and not seen (Clapper Rail, Spotted Rail and Antillean Nighthawk) and one species only seen freshly dead (Short-eared Owl).
I hope that you returned with memories of warm, friendly people and a vibrant culture as well as some remarkable birds.
March 21st :- It took some time to gather everyone together from two separate flights but we finally joined our driver Joel and guide Raydalí who escorted us to our coach. After a brief stop at La Chorrera for refreshment and to get our breath, we continued and a Barn Owl flew across in front of the coach, seen by some. We eventually got to Hotel Los Jazmines in Viñales at midnight and everyone went to bed after a long trip.
March 22nd :- After an early breakfast we set off in the coach for the short journey to Dos Hermanas down among the mogotes, or limestone hills on a blustery, cloudy morning. Despite the weather the birding was excellent and we soon had an impressive list including our target bird for the morning Cuban Solitaire, which obliging sat atop a bare tree and sang for some considerable time. Other endemics seen were the delightful Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon, Yellow-headed Warbler and Cuban Blackbird. We stopped for a chat and coffee with the very hospitable woman who lives alongside the track before returning to the hotel for lunch. In the afternoon we took the bus into the town of Viñales and on to Ranchón San Vicente for the afternoon’s birding. There was no sign of the Cuban Grassquits we had come to see but some excellent views of the declining Scaly-naped Pigeon, a Broad-winged Hawk and other species. Our first log showed that we saw 45 species for the day.
March 23rd :- We set off at 07.30 for San Diego de los Baños in search of new birds and after a brief stop at the Hotel Mirador we found the right patch of scrub and soon tracked down Cuban Grassquit with Cuban Green Woodpecker, Indigo Bunting and Eastern Meadowlark as a bonus. We continued on to Hacienda Cortina but could not locate Olive-capped Warbler. Things were getting quiet so we returned to the fishponds alongside the motorway and soon had excellent views of Snail Kite, a range of herons and egrets and Caspian Tern. After a late lunch we walked from the hotel and had a brief introduction to tobacco farming followed by excellent coffee and grapefruit. Things were quiet down by the (rather dried-up) stream and we came back of the hill to the road to make a final search of the pines. There was a flurry of excitement at a high-up Yellow-throated Warbler and then at the very last, we found one Olive-capped Warbler! We logged 47 species for the day before dinner and bed.
March 24th :- This was our major travelling day although we had a productive stop at the reservoir just before Havana seeing Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Pelican, several egrets and herons as well as some rather distant ducks. We continued on to Aguada de Pasajeros for lunch and then the long drive to Cayo Coco with Northern Harrier seen alongside the road. Joel finally got us to Hotel Sol Cayo Coco for check-in at 20.00 and the log was postponed until the following day so that everyone had time to sort themselves out before dinner and bed.
March 25th :- We left for Cayo Paredón Grande at 08.00 and Joel got us over the difficult bridge without any problems and we were soon searching the scrub near the lighthouse. It was very humid and the birds were difficult to find at the beginning. Eventually we got great views of Cuban Gnatcatcher and then Thick-billed Vireo – there was also the bonus of an Eastern Wood Pewee, an uncommon migrant. The drive back to the bridge produced good views of Cuban Black Hawk and we then spent some time birding at the bridge which allowed us a view of the long-staying Lesser Black-backed Gull and Crested Caracara. We then stopped alongside the road and summoned up a superb Cuban Sparrow and finally excellent views of Oriente Warbler as well as Cuban Vireo.
The afternoon trip to Cayo Guillermo was most productive, starting with the target species of Bahama Mockingbird which we found fairly quickly and then a Mangrove Cuckoo, not seen on every trip. After that we concentrated on the waterbirds in the pools around one of the hotels and spent a pleasant hour or so ticking off egrets, Caribbean Flamingo, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis and a variety of waders although Clapper Rail was only heard. The evening log showed we had seen 75 species that day and a rather impressive 55 for our previous day on the road.
March 26th :- We started with a pre-breakfast search for West Indian Whistling Ducks around the lagoon at Hotel Tryp but only saw two flying over. After breakfast we drove the short distance to Cueva de Jabali or Wild Boar Cave where the local guide Paulino (who was unfortunately away) puts out water to attract a variety of species. After a while we all had absolutely superb views of Key West Quail-dove with a female Painted Bunting as a welcome extra. We set off from here at 11.00 for our next base near Camagüey, stopping for lunch at El Oasis (where Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was new) and then arriving at La Belen in the late afternoon. After getting into our rooms we had time for a short walk in the reserve and were rewarded with Cuban Crow, Cuban Parakeet, Limpkin and Northern Jacana. The log showed 78 species for the day.
March 27th :- We were up and out early with our local guide Camilo and were rewarded with superb views of perched West Indian Whistling Duck. The specialities were also seen well, such as Cuban Parakeet, Cuban Pygmy Owl, Rose-throated Parrot, Plain Pigeon and Giant Kingbird. By 11.00 it was hot and we wandered back for lunch and a free afternoon – although we ended the day with a short walk and encountered several warbler flocks to entertain us. Before dinner the log had 55 species entered in it.
March 28th :- We set off at 07.30 for birding along a trail through open country and then into woodland with Camilo and almost immediately added the rare Cuban Palm Crow to our list. We also heard Antillean Nighthawk but weren’t able to see it. After lunch Joel dropped us off on the edge of the old city for our cultural tour, led by Raydalí. The bicitaxis were waiting and we were soon zooming through the narrow streets, stopping at various locations of interest in this World Heritage Site. Raydalí gave us lots of information about her home city. After a beer in bar El Cambio it was back to the hotel for log (52 species) and dinner.
March 29th :- We left Camagüey at a respectable 08.00 and it wasn’t long before a soaring raptor had us tumbling out of the coach – Swallow-tailed Kite! We watched it for some time but it didn’t come any closer although another new bird in the shape of a Merlin flew by. We stopped at Rio Azul for lunch and later for a comfort break on the motorway before arriving at Hotel Playa Larga in Zapata at 18.20. After settling in we did the day’s log of 48 species before dinner.
March 30th :- Departure was at 07.30 after breakfast for Los Hondones in the woods of the Zapata Swamp. There were plenty of woodland species to see including our first Worm-eating Warbler and our only Red-legged Honeycreeper. We quickly found a Key West Quail-dove followed by a second and a Ruddy Quail-dove which flew quickly and was not seen by everyone. The highlight though was the Bee Hummingbird in a bare tree in a clearing of the trail – stunning! At lunch Paul called a soaring raptor (again!) and this proved to be a Mississippi Kite on migration, a really good find. After a siesta we left again for Soplillar where our guide Angel tickled up a Cuban Screech Owl from its daytime roost to blink at us in the light. Our log showed that we saw 66 species this day.
March 31st :- We set off early for the trails around Bermejas to try for the elusive quail-doves and on the way encountered a recently-dead Short-eared Owl in the road, unfortunately a species we didn’t see alive. We were lucky enough to find Grey-fronted Quail-dove but the rarer Blue-headed Quail-dove eluded us, although a Summer Tanager was a nice find whilst we waited at the water hole. After lunch we set off for the short drive to Palpite only to be pouring out of the bus as Angel called Gundlach’s Hawk. This rare and elusive species disappeared over the trees with only two of the group getting a look. At our destination we were rewarded with excellent views of male Fernandina’s Flicker at a nest-hole with Glossy Ibis flying over as a bonus. The log showed 68 species seen and we added another after dinner with reasonable views of Stygian Owl in the hotel grounds.
April 1st :- The hotel staff very kindly gave us a full breakfast service at 05.45 and we set off at 06.15 for La Turba. After only very brief views of Greater Antillean Nightjar at the track entrance we continued for a few kilometres into the very heart of the swamp to look for the elusive Zapata Wren. Within a few minutes of playing the song we had the bird just a few metres away, singing its heart out but it remained resolutely out of sight. After trying unsuccessfully for the endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird we tried again and the Zapata Wren showed briefly half-hidden by vegetation. After a rather frustrating early morning we stopped at La Boca for coffee and some light birding. Here we were treated to several flyovers of a single Anhinga, Purple Gallinule and close-ups of Cuban Martins at their nest site. The trees alongside the road were buzzing with warblers and we spent a pleasant hour amongst them before returning for lunch. The afternoon session was back at Bermejas and at last we got good but fleeting views of two Blue-headed Quail-doves. Back at the roadside fence of flowering piñon trees the local guide Orlando quickly located the male Bee Hummingbird and we were treated to a spectacular display of aerobatics and gorget-flashing by this amazing bird. We returned quite late and the log added up to 71 species.
April 2nd :- We returned to Soplillar early for another try at quail-doves and were eventually rewarded with spectacular and long views of a single Grey-fronted Quail-dove out in the open – a just reward for so much hard work. Otherwise it was a quiet morning and we returned early to the hotel. In the afternoon we drove off to La Salinas and some waterbirds. American White Pelican was a spectacular find but a group of small waders took some considerable sorting out. We decided on White-rumped Sandpiper and Dunlin as new to our list but had to leave some individuals unidentified. Despite it being a fairly quiet day, the mixture of woodland and wetland birding had given us our highest day-total of 79 species.
April 3rd :- We said goodbye to Zapata and left at 08.20 for the drive to Havana. After a short tour of parts of the city by bus (with commentary by Raydalí) we arrived at Hotel Sevilla in time for lunch. By the time we had finished our rooms were ready and we then met up again at 15.00 for our walking tour of the old city. Starting at Plaza de San Francisco, we moved through the streets to Plaza Vieja, Plaza del Armas and finally Plaza de la Catedral encountering old buildings, interesting shops and a small street carnival – always with Raydalí’s informative commentary. As a change from our usual diet, we went to an Italian restaurant just up the road - Restaurante Prado y Neptuno - and had a very enjoyable evening which was continued elsewhere by some of the group late into the night!
April 4th :- We assembled at 09.00 for a walk to the Artisans Market for some serious souvenir buying. This was quite a long walk from the hotel and left just an hour for shopping which was just about right. We returned to check out and have lunch in the Patio Sevillano of the hotel before being collected at 15.00 for the drive to the airport.
April 5th :- Arrive back into London Gatwick after our night flight.
Species list for Cuba trip 2010
||American White Pelican
||Great Blue Heron
||Little Blue Heron
||West Indian Whistling-Duck
||Lesser Black-backed Gull
||Rock Dove (feral)
||Key West Quail-Dove
||Cuban Screech Owl
||Greater Antillean Nightjar
||West Indian Woodpecker
||Cuban Green Woodpecker
||La Sagra's Flycatcher
||Northern Rough-winged Swallow
||Cuban Palm Crow
||Cape May Warbler
||Black-throated Blue Warbler
||Black-throated Green Warbler
||Western Stripe-headed Tanager
||Greater Antillean Grackle