Arriving mid-evening in a hot and humid Havana, we travelled across to our first hotel, situated in the west of Cuba. The normally birdless journey was enlivened somewhat by a Greater Antillean (Barn) Owl flying across the road. It was only seen by those who were awake at the time but we would see more, so no panic!
The Pinar del Rio region in 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. In the true above the car park we were soon into the action with Cuban Pygmy Owl and Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds showing well along with Loggerhead Kingbird and Northern Parula. Moving along towards he caves themselves produced great views of West Indian Woodpecker and a flyover Broad-winged Hawk. Up to four Red-legged Honeycreepers were present in the nearby Casuarina trees with numerous Black and white Warblers and tail fanning American Redstarts flycatching acrobatically like giant orange, white and black butterflies.
A nice surprise here was to hear the playful chattering notes of Giant Kingbird. We soon tracked it down and were soon watching a pair flying back and forth to a distant palm tree. This was the first time we’d recorded this rare and hard to see endemic at the site so a real bonus.
Behind the caves we were also able to track down and enjoy the elusive Cuban Solitaire, a male of which eventually gave wonderful prolonged views and several bursts of the rich and fluty song. Louisiana Waterthrush often overwinters along the stream and this winter proved no exception as a vocal bird was located feeding at the base of a small ornamental bridge. Nearby we also saw La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Vireo. Cuban Trogons were heard calling in the distance but remained unseen, more Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds flew in to feed and another Cuban Pygmy Owl glared down menacingly at us. It was here that we enjoyed our first looks at the gorgeous pink and green Cuban Tody. The bird ,which to many is often said to have been painted by a young child with bright pink flanks, bright green upperparts, bright red bill and bright blue neck patches, entertained us as it whizzed from branch to branch with a characteristic whirr - beautifully impersonated by Leo! Several Scaly-naped Pigeons were also seen this morning and gave good views.
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, 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 whilst the air was full of Roseate Skimmer dragonflies which may have numbered into the thousands!
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, a few Blue-winged Teals and Northern Shovelers, Green Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron, several Belted Kingfishers, Caspian and Royal Terns, Pied-billed Grebes and rafts of American Coot. The trees in the car park held Palm Warbler and American Redstart, and to make us feel at home, House Sparrow.
After travelling from the far West of Cuba across to the Northern Cays, our new base at Cayo Coco produced some excellent birds in the garden on our arrival. The Sea Grape trees produced several Black-and-white Warblers, singles of Magnolia, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green, as well as a couple of Yellow-throated and a few Prairie. New World Warblers are probably my favourite family of birds, which I don’t think you can ever tire of seeing. Cuba plays host to at least 10 species during the winter, all of which have an easterly bias to their migration route, passing up through Florida in spring,
Cayo Paredon Grande is always such a great place to go birding and the following morning proved to be no exception! Our first few hours produced Cuban Gnatcatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird,
Oriente Warbler, Cuban Bullfinch, Western Spindalis, a superb Mangrove Cuckoo and after a while, a very cooperative Thick-billed Vireo sat out in full view for us. Also this morning there were literally hundreds of Cape May Warblers at the point, with American Redstarts, Prairie, Black-throated Blue and Northern Parula all mixed in. Eastern Wood Pewee was also noted near the lighthouse as was the smaller and brighter gloria race of Cuban Green Woodpecker.
The light in Cuba is excellent, especially on the cays where you get extra reflection off the sea and white sands. A young Osprey flew along the beach with some Royal Terns in attendance, whilst we watched Sandering and Turnstone picking through the seaweed alongside Piping and Black-bellied (Grey) Plovers. The Osprey just kept coming towards us and passed right overhead - you can’t ask for better light than this when watching and photographing such a fabulous raptor, and it was so close!
The evening saw us out in the grounds of a nearby hotel searching for the regular Greater Antillean (Barn) Owl: a bird we’d first seen at this location when we visited in the spring. The bird had read the script as it was located perched in a thick Tamarisk and showed well.
Early the following morning we birded woodland/scrub habitats and enjoyed superb but brief 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 Swainson’s Warbler. Checking out a female Hooded Warbler which showed briefly, another smaller Wilsonia warbler was found hopping around and feeding nervously in the undergrowth and occasionally coming out into the open. On closer inspection the lack of white in the tail and the blackish skull cap all pointed towards Wilson’s Warbler; a very good bird for Cayo Coco! 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 5 West Indian Whistling Ducks gave great views perched on exposed branches. Shorebirds here included Lesser Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilts, with a range of herons, egrets, spoonbills, ibis and other waterbirds to keep us busy sorting through them. Nearby the endemic form of Northern Flicker showed well and in nearby mangroves the Cuban form of Clapper Rail called in the distance but remained hidden. Another Oriente Warbler showed well as we headed back, it was also accompanied by two Black-throated Green Warblers and several Northern Parulas.
After some early morning birding which bought us a Taiga Merlin and great views of Cuban Black Hawk, we left the bright blue sea and white sands of the northern cays and headed inland to Camaguey. Stopping en route to check out the weedy fields we were soon admiring another species which in future could be classed as an endemic. The Eastern Meadowlark which occurs in Cuba is of the form hippocreppis; the song and other vocalisations have a very different tone to those birds found in Eastern USA and it is thought that ‘Cuban Meadowlark’ may well warrant treatment as a full species. This is only anticipated though and not confirmed yet, but it is a very smart bird anyway and worth seeing, full species or not!
Having spent the night in 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 stand of Palm trees Cuban Crows gave their comical almost musical calls whilst their smaller cousin the Palm Crow showed well in a paddock near the entrance to the lodge. 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 5 seen, together with at least 2 Cuban Trogons.
The butterflies at La Belen were superb with at least 30 species seen. Highlights were the huge yellow and black Androgeus Swallowtail and the impressive Malachite, which insisted on landing on just about every member of the group at some time during the morning. Gulf Fritillaries and Flambeau accompanied the large and spectacular Julia and Zebra Heliconius. Smaller butterflies
included Hewitson's and Lucas’s Hairstreaks, Cuban Peacock, Cassius Blue, Tropical Chequered and Long-tailed Skippers and the diminutive Pygmy Fritillary.
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. However, firstly we had to get to the area which had been flooded the previous month due to heavy rain storms. Wading up to our knees, we crossed the flood and got into our small but comfortable canoes and headed downrive. Zapata Sparrow showed well in waterside vegetation whilst the usually elusive Zapata Wren gave us very close but brief views, with a Common Yellowthroat and Western Spindalis close by. Nearby a male Red-shouldered Blackbird showed very well in roadside vegetation. A Gundlach’s Hawk heard calling nearby resulted in us racing to a clearing to try and locate it, as we scanned the trees, it called once again and then flew low over our heads, a massive female, giving tremendous close views!
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, 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.
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 Blue-headed Quail Dove was voted the bird of the trip, although there were many worthy candidates including the cute Cuban Tody, Stygian Owl, Mangrove Cuckoo, Bee Hummingbird and Western Spindalis.
Our final evening was spent at La Moneda restaurant in Old Havana. A very nice meal was followed by Santiago de Cuba Rum which was a great way to round up the evening. 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!