After arriving in Cuba the previous evening we awoke to a pleasantly warm and sunny morning in San Diego de los Banos, with small parties of Antillean Palm Swifts coming down low to drink from the hotel swimming pool, Turkey Vultures soared overhead, smart Red-legged Thrushes were hopping around the lawn and Cuban Emerald hummingbirds feeding amongst the flowering trees.
Our first stop was in La Guira National Park. Cuevas de Los Portales, the caves in which Che Guevara and his men took refuge during the 1962 missile crisis, is also home to some very sought after birds. This morning we were able to enjoy wonderful prolonged views of the elusive Cuban Solitaire, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Pewee nearby. The fruiting trees held numerous Cuban Trogons, Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds and Black-whiskered Vireos, as well as Cuban Vireo, Cuban Pygmy Owl and point blank views of the loud and impressive West Indian Woodpecker. Along a small rocky stream, a Louisiana Waterthrush showed well as Cuban Cave Swallows flew back and forth to their nests inside the caves. Scaly-naped Pigeons showed but as always remained elusive with only brief views obtained.
Hacienda Cortina is always a great place to go birding and this visit proved to be no exception. A very confiding female Black and White Warbler started things off well with 2 American Redstarts nearby. A pair of the endemic Olive-capped Warbler showed well in low pines, sharing a sap-well with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Cuban Today is always a ‘wow’ bird and our first this year certainly lived up to the expectation; a mixture of bright green, bright pink, and blue, contrasting with a long bright red bill, and tonnes of character!
Searching the open woodlands around Cortina also produced Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cuban Bullfinch, the large and surprisingly agile Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Oriole and numerous Loggerhead Kingbirds. Northbound migrants here included Northern Parula and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Summer Tanager and up to 5 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, which included 2 very smart adult males. On our way back to the hotel we called in at an area of setaside fields which produced numerous Yellow-faced Grassquits and the much rarer endemic Cuban Grassquit.
We moved from the forests of La Guira to the crystal clear waters and white sands of the northern cays. From our base at Cayo Coco, we explored the northern cays in the coming days. An early morning encounter with a Greater Antillean Owl (Barn Owl ssp furcata) was a nice surprise on which to start our time here. A scan of nearby beaches produced Western Sandpiper, American Oystercatcher and Piping Plover as well as a Brown Booby resting on a nearby jetty. Some mangrove-lined lagoons visited towards the end of the day produced the Cuban form of Clapper Rail, thought to be soon split as yet another endemic species for this bird rich country.
Moving along the cays we birded woodland/scrub habitats and enjoyed superb views of Key West Quail Dove, Zenaida Dove and Ovenbird, all walking around in the leaf litter. Overhead in the trees, Black and White, Cape May and Northern Parula Warblers showed well with a female Hooded Warbler and Gray Catbird nearby. On the shallow lagoon, up to 10 West Indian Whistling Ducks gave great views as they kept out of the hot sun by sheltering underneath the jetty of a nearby house.
Travelling further west along to Cayo Guillermo, we watched large mixed flocks of Roseate Spoonbills, herons, egrets, White Ibis and Caribbean Flamingo, feeding alongside Black-necked Stilt, Killdeer, Short-billed Dowitcher and Still Sandpiper. Our target here was the Bahama Mockingbird but despite our efforts it remained unseen in areas of likely habitat - but there were lots of Northern Mockingbirds and a couple of Cuban Vireos. Whilst searching the roadside mangroves we watched several warblers busily feeding alongside one another; Northern Waterthrush and Common Yellowthroat fed out in the open on the dried mud with multiple Palm Warblers and the bright yellow ‘Mangrove’ Yellow Warbler foraging close-by.
Exploring the Cays of Romano and Paredon Grande, we found the elusive Thick-billed Vireo, the delightful Oriente Warbler and very close views of the endemic crab-eating raptor, the Cuban Black Hawk. Searching the thorny scrub and Silver Palms we also saw Cuban Gnatcatcher, the recently renamed Western Spindalis (formerly Stripe-headed Tanager) and caught up with the elusive Bahama Mockingbird, a bird we’d searched for unsuccessfully the previous day.
Moving inland to Camaguey, we spent a whole day exploring the woodland habitats of Sierra Najasa National Park at La Belen. Our targets here were all seen relatively easily. Plain Pigeon and Cuban Parrot were perched within a few feet of one another whilst a noisy party of Cuban Parakeets fed nearby. Giant Kingbird gave us close and prolonged views along a fence line. In a shaded area two Limpkins feeding also gave us very good views. All this whilst a great selection of warblers fed in the trees including Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Prairie, Yellow-throated, Northern Parula, Black and White and numerous American Redstarts. Gundlach’s Hawk is probably the least predictable of all the Cuban endemics on a birding tour so an adult flying past at low level was very much appreciated. Our time at La Belen was rounded up with Least and Pied-billed Grebes sharing a small pond with Northern Jacana also showing very well.
Our final destination was the world famous Zapata Swamp, where on our first morning the usually elusive Zapata Wren gave us very close views, later to be joined by a further 2 birds. Nearby a male Zapata Sparrow showed very well and several Northern Waterthrushes were noted among the water’s edge. Travelling a little further along the coast produced great views of another very rare and much wanted bird, the beautifully marked Fernandina’s Flicker.
Our first morning on the Zapata peninsular was clearly very successful and we decided to push that a little further by trying for one of THE star birds of Cuba, the tiny Bee Hummingbird. On arrival at the site, we were greeted and welcomed by the house owner, who proudly pointed to the large flowering bush in her garden. There, right in front of us, almost like a big moth was a female Bee Hummingbird busily hovering as she moved between the flower heads. Soon afterwards the male with his exquisite red gorget and epaulettes whizzed around, perching momentarily before continuing to feed.
A rather surreal experience happened whilst we watched the perched Bee Hummingbird, a female House Sparrow appeared immediately behind the hummer - it was at this point that the tiny size of the hummer became apparent as it was clear that you could practically fit a Bee Hummingbird into the sparrow’s head alone!
Our tour to Zapata would not be complete without multiple visits to several excellent forests. These visits at dawn and dusk produced 4 species of quail dove including the much-wanted Blue-headed, as well as a good number of warblers including Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Yellow-headed, Swainson’s and Prairie all showing well with 6 Worm-eating, 8 American Redstarts and 3 Black-throated Blue coming to drink late afternoon with a Ruddy Quail-dove.
Owls are always popular and sought after species on birding tours, so our haul in Zapata of 3 Cuban Pygmy, 4 Stygian and a single sleepy-looking Bare-legged peeking out of a palm stump definitely met expectations. In addition, several Yellow-throated Vireos, Cuban Meadowlarks, a single Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird complemented our already very good collection of sightings here.
Heading back to Havana, we enjoyed a city tour with a difference followed by a superb lunch at El Tocororro Restaurant. complete with musical accompaniment from the excellent Salsa Unica. At the Fortress Morro del Reyes we walked around the busy market looking for souvenirs which included 3 magic boxes! Finally the leader had a chance to sit in the new Sunbird Staff car - a bright red 1950’s Cadillac - if only!
Towards the end of the tour, Stu asked that all participants nominated their bird of the trip. There were many candidates including Stygian Owl, Blue-headed Quail Dove and Black and White Warbler. However, with 3 votes the Cuban Today was a clear and worthy winner!
So, great birds, friendly people, lots of music, great food and a very sunny 30 degrees most days. In summary, Cuba is magic!