Our first morning dawned pleasantly warm and sunny in San Diego de los Banos, with Yellow-faced Grassquits on the hotel lawn, parties of Antillean Palm Swifts coming down low to drink from the hotel swimming pool and Turkey Vultures soaring overhead. Meanwhile, smart Red-legged Thrushes hopped around in the leaf litter and Cuban Emerald hummingbirds fed amongst the flowering trees.
The west of Cuba is home to very hard-to-come-by endemic birds and our first stop was in La Guira National Park, home to lots of them. 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, some of which we would not see elsewhere on the island. This morning we were able to enjoy the first of these with wonderful prolonged views of the elusive Cuban Solitaire, also here 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 together with West Indian Woodpecker and our first looks at the gorgeous pink and green Cuban Tody. Our first Yellow-headed Warblers of the tour gave great views and a Louisiana Waterthrush sang and showed well, with a rather splendid male Common Yellowthroat also out in full view.
All this whilst Cuban Cave Swallows flew back and forth to their nests inside the caves and Loggerhead Kingbirds sallied back and forth from overhead wires. Scaly-naped Pigeons showed briefly but as always remained elusive, always leaving you wanting more.
La Guira National Park also has a very rich birdlife and our time here began well with a pair of the endemic Olive-capped Warbler showing well in low pines, sharing a sap-well with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Red-legged Honeycreepers and Cuban Bullfinches also showed well together with that dazzling Cuban species, the Western Spindalis. Nearby the trees and bushes held Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Oriole and numerous Loggerhead Kingbirds. Northbound migrants here included Northern Parula, American Redstart and both Magnolia and Black-throated Blue Warblers, On our way back to the hotel we called in at an area of setaside fields which produced huge numbers of Palm Warblers together with numerous Yellow-faced Grassquits. After a careful search we located a single male of the much rarer endemic Cuban Grassquit and a brief male Indigo Bunting - our first of the spring.
Leaving the Pinar del Rio region and heading east, we called in at a large lake en route. This produced a wealth of birds with hundreds of Lesser Scaups, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks, Black-crowned Night Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Caspian Tern and a new species for our tour in Cuba, the Scaly-breasted Munia or Nutmeg Mannakin as it is sometimes known; an exotic of unknown origin maybe, but nonetheless it looked at home feeding in low Tamarisk bushes on the lake edge, only a few feet from the numerous Palm Warblers, feeding busily as they worked their way north.
Having spent most of the day travelling we arrived at the crystal clear waters and white sands of the northern cays. From our base at Cayo Coco, we explored the area around the hotel which produced several Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstart, Cuban Oriole and Northern Waterthrush, whilst the lagoon nearby held a party of West Indian Whistling Ducks, a flock of Royal Terns and several Killdeer. The Greater Antillean Owl (Barn Owl ssp furcata) which we’d seen the previous week was at his regular dusk perch and showed well. Popping down to the beach to sample the warm sea produced a very confiding Northern Waterthrush feeding between the wooden bridge sections. A scan of nearby beaches the following day produced the semi-resident American Oystercatcher and at least 5 Piping Plover together with numerous Semipalmated Plovers, a few Willets, Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings.
Early morning 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 and coming to drink. These were later joined by a brief female Painted Bunting and a male Indigo Bunting. Overhead in the trees, Magnolia, Prairie, Black and White, Cape May and Northern Parula Warblers showed well whilst a Red-tailed Hawk of the Cuban form solitudinus drifted overhead. Nearby on the shallow lagoons, up to 10 West Indian Whistling Ducks gave great views sheltering underneath the jetty of a nearby house. The vast array of shorebirds, herons, egrets, spoonbills, ibis and other waterbirds kept us busy sorting through them, the best of which were probably the Stilt Sandpipers starting the moult into breeding plumage and starting to look very smart indeed. Whilst we were scanning through the flocks, Sora showed well at the base of the mangroves and the Cuban form of Clapper Rail ran along the lagoon edge, trying to remain unseen.
Our previous visit two weeks earlier to the Cays of Romano and Paredon Grande was subject to buffeting by strong winds but today was sunny and with virtually no wind. As a result of these excellent conditions, we soon found the normally elusive Thick-billed Vireo, the delightful Oriente Warbler and very close views of the varonai form of Zapata Sparrow, which perhaps is a future split from the race found in Zapata. Other sought-after species here included an endemic crab-eating raptor, the Cuban Black Hawk, the white-headed ridgwayi form of Osprey (perhaps another split as it is resident on the islands) and a very dark male Merlin, most probably of the Taiga group, of which of course, is another potential split - the mottled, not streaked underparts and virtually blackish upperparts give the bird a different overall appearance to the European birds with which most of the group were familiar.
Searching the thorny scrub and Silver Palms we also saw the delicate Cuban Gnatcatcher, the recently renamed Western Spindalis (formerly Stripe-headed Tanager) and great perched views of at least two Bahama Mockingbird, a bird we’d really struggled with on the previous visit here in strong winds. After some early morning birding which bought us fantastic prolonged views of Mangrove Cuckoo and the Cuban form of Northern Flicker we left the bright blue sea and white sands of the northern cays and headed inland to Camaguey, we spent the whole of the following day exploring the woodland habitats of Sierra Najasa National Park at La Belen. This area is home to no less than 8 endemics and after a few hours all 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 perched atop of trees bordering the stables. In a shaded area two Limpkins feeding also gave us very good views, with another on the roadside late afternoon. 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. Cuban Pygmy Owl was particularly conspicuous today with at least 6 seen, together with the same number of Cuban Trogons. Our time at La Belen was rounded up with Least and Pied-billed Grebes sharing a small pond with Northern Jacana and Green Heron also showing very well.
Moving onto to our final destination, the world famous Zapata Swamp, which always produces multiple good birds, and this tour was to be no exception. After a little coaxing, the usually elusive Zapata Wren gave us very close views, with a Northern Waterthrush and Northern Parula close by. Nearby a male Red-shouldered Blackbird showed very well and flew into the trees above our heads! Travelling a little further along the track produced great views of another very rare and much wanted bird, the beautifully marked Zapata Sparrow, as well as brief flight views of a Ruddy Quail Dove which flew right down the centre of the track.
The forests around Zapata are heaving with good birds and our first few hours produced wonderful views of Blue-headed Quail Dove, Fernandina’s Flicker and the diminutive Bare-legged Owl, looking a bit sleepy and a bit annoyed at the same time. A little further into the forest we had fantastic close views of the massive Stygian Owl, glaring down at us with its menacing dark orange eyes. A little more searching and soon we were face to face with the excellent Cuban Nightjar, perched just above eye-level. Other great birds in the forest included numerous Ovenbirds, Worm-eating and Swainson’s Warblers, Grey-fronted Quail Dove, a flyover Gundlach’s Hawk and great views of all four of Cuba’s woodpeckers, Cuban Green, West Indian, Fernandina’s Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. A Wood Stork picked up soaring in the distance by Bernard, was also a very good bird for the trip, and the only Wood Stork of the whole trip.
The main highlight of the Zapata peninsular is the Bee Hummingbird and we were given what can only de described as a breathtaking display as the male fizzed about excitedly, then without warning went shooting up into the sky, returning as quickly as he went up, the glistening fiery red-orange throat and epaulettes showing so well in the late afternoon sunshine. We visited the site 3 times during our stay in Zapata and on each occasion we marvelled at the tiny size, high energy and exquisite plumage which all combine to make this a very special bird.
However, just as we thought you could not beat the spectacular Bee Hummingbird, the sight which greeted us before dinner one evening was simply incredible; the mass migration of land crabs had commenced and the road was literally covered with crabs for 3 days. It became a spectacle of such magnitude that several of the group commented to the effect of ‘you only see this sort of thing on David Attenborough programmes’, such was the size and scale of the migration, everyone stood in awe as the leaves rustled with the sound of thousand of crabs emerging from the forests to make the journey to the sea - what an incredible spectacle!
Towards the end of the tour, Stu asked that all participants nominated their bird of the trip. With the incredible views we’d enjoyed, it was not much of a surprise that Bee Hummingbird was voted the bird of the trip, although there were many worthy candidates including the cute Cuban Tody, Stygian Owl, Mangrove Cuckoo, Blue-headed Quail Dove and Western Spindalis.
So, as we prepared to travel home, we reflected on an enjoyable and successful trip with great birds, friendly people, lots of music, great food and great weather. Cuba is a wonderful vibrant country with lots of wildlife and I’m already looking forward to returning!