8th – 22nd March 2012
When Mark Breaks suggested a trip to Cuba last year I thought that by the time March came around, it would be ideal to have a holiday after several months solid work. And so plans were made, flights booked and hotel reservations made, with a lot of help from Andy Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org). Mark, Rob Hughes and I flew out of Manchester direct to Varadero with Thompson Airlines - the leg room was excellent putting some national airlines to shame. Ten hours later we breezed though immigration and customs - a bit of interest in our telescopes but no problem with iPhones - and made our way to the car rental place to pick up our Seat Ibiza (believe me, it was the best of a bad bunch!)
Our first hotel was in nearby Mataznas (Hotel Canimao). As our arrival process was swift we managed to get some birding in before dark in the hotel grounds that bordered a river. This turned out to be rather good allowing ourselves to get acquainted with some of the commoner Cuban birds. The hotel was rather dated but the grounds were excellent, perhaps not of Senegambia quality but 28 species in a couple of hours were most welcome.
Already we were fed up with Turkey Vultures which were absolutely everywhere and we has soon added a couple of all black species in the form of Greater Antillean Grackle and Cuban Blackbird. Cuban Pewee and Northern Mockingbird showed themselves well as did Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Emerald, West Indian Woodpecker and Common Ground Dove - all common species around the island. Down by the river we added Brown Pelican, Little Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher and Antillean Palm Swifts amongst others.
Our first North American warbler of the trip was a Palm Warbler - and then another, and another...... they were very common wherever we went. American Redstart was another species that we saw all over the island though in lower numbers and Yellow-throated Warbler was a very welcome lifer! An immature White-eyed Vireo gave us a bit of a challenge.
The following morning we got up before dawn and searched the grounds again before breakfast; Red-legged Honeycreeper (four of them) was added to the list - the best views of this species all holiday - as well as a host of warblers including Tennessee, Black-throated Blue, Black and White, Cape May and Prairie, the latter another stonking bird that we came across regularly. We also got our first encounter with the fluorescent, diminutive Cuban Tody.
After a pathetic breakfast we made our way to our first 'proper' destination. Two and a half hours west on the other side of Havana towards Pinar del Rio is a region of limestone escarpments with a particular fauna. La Guira is a national park in the area and that's where we were heading for, staying at Hotel Mirador at San Diego de los Banos.
The trip was, erm, interesting! Cuban roads are notoriously bad and full of pot holes and we weren't disappointed. There are very few road signs and driving through busy towns with bikes and pedestrians, following lorries that are belching black smoke for miles or two-stroke motor bikes that knock you out with the fumes or a horse and cart around a no-overtaking corner tested ones patience - and then when there is a clear stretch of road (and there are many) it's pothole dodging at speed that normally necessitates driving on the wrong side of the road. Crossing over a bridge with a pool of water produced a Green Heron and flocks of Cave Swallows preparing for breeding.
On reaching the 'motoway' (autopista) we picked up speed and dodging potholes took on a new dimension. It wasn't a problem - you had four lanes to dodge into as there was no other traffic to speak of (apart from horse and cart going the wrong way in the fast lane). We skirted Havana successfully with only one wrong turn and just as we got out of the suburbs we stopped to look at a marshy fringed reservoir that held lots of birds. A few Forster's Terns were quickly noted as well as large rafts of Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Shoveler and Blue-winged Teal. A few Pied-billed and Least Grebes were dotted around along with several herons and egrets.
American Kestrels of both red and white-breasted forms and Cattle Egrets were commonly seen en-route and another brief stop at a likely looking patch of water got us our only Whistling Ducks of the trip - 15 of the Fulvous variety. We found the hotel and checked in but soon set of out to try for Cuban Grassquit as there was a good 'site' for this once common species nearby. After a bit of searching, Rob found the target species and soon we all had a good but all-too-brief view of two males in amongst a flock of the much commoner Yellow-faced Grassquits. A couple of miles up the road was the entrance to the park and a small lake where we got much better views of Least Grebe as well as lots of other species such as American Purple Gallinule, Loggerhead Kingbird, Le Sagra's Flycatcher and Cuban Vireo bringing the day's total to 69.
Cuban Grassquit Least Grebe
I awoke on Saturday morning not feeling terribly well. We'd got directions to the best place for the Cuban Solitaire from local guide, Cesar, so we decided we'd have a go at driving in the dark. A good job it was because 100 yards down the road I had to yell to Mark to stop so I could debunk and empty the contents of my stomach. Soon we were back on the road again and following one more emergency stop, we arrived at Cuevas de Portales which was where Che Guevara and his merry men had their hide out. Anyway, it's a campsite for Cubans now - we were told to get there early as they play music at full volume from 9am.
We were taken to the entrance by the guard who seemed completely unphased about visitors at 7am - we could hear the Cuban Solitaires singing. Soon we were in the 'garden' on the other side of the cave, a wonderful oasis filled with birdsong of all sorts. Cuban Tody's were all around, their fluorescent plumage glowing in the dim corners of the forest. White-crowned and Scaly-naped Pigeons sat out on show (this was the only place we actually registered the latter) and we got a fantastic performance by a solitaire - unfortunately far too dark for any pictures. Both Mark and Rob got glimpses of Yellow-headed Warbler but I had to wait until later in the trip for mine. More birds were showing in the scrub around the campsite but the music was on (and loud) so we headed for a site further up the hill where more birds could be seen.
Cuban Trogon Cuban Solitaire
It was getting hot but I wasn't feeling too bad so once we'd parked the car under the pines we made our way up to a traditional site for the Solitaires.
Another speciality, Olive-capped Warbler, was common here with its Willow Warbler-like song and soon we were seeing more birds including Solitaires and Cuban Trogons.
We headed back to the hotel at midday where I spent the rest of the day getting myself ready for the long drive the following day whilst the lads went searching for other goodies - Snail Kites and a few other bits and pieces. The day had produced a total of 71 species and luckily I was fit enough to see the special birds of the area!
Sunday 11th March - it's my birthday and fortunately I've slept for 18 hours and shaken off the tummy bug. I want my breakfast but the clock went forward during the night so we and several Italian guests were waiting patiently outside the restaurant in the rapidly brightening sky. As it turned out the clocks don't go forward in Cuba. Please note: a) the stewardess on the plane that told us they did, and b) Apple as my iPhone reset itself - I ended up having to work an hour ahead of everyone for the rest of the trip!
Today was going to be a long one in the driving seat as we had some distance to travel to get to our 5* all-inclusive hotel on Cayo Coco which is half way and more across the island. The trip was rather entertaining at first, we hit the Carreta Central to get to the Auotpista only to find that the ex-main road led straight into a reservoir - oops!
We got lots of American Kestrels and a few Eastern Meadowlarks along the way and I managed to catch up with the Snail Kites and Tri-coloured Munias at the fish-ponds by the side of the road.
We also stopped again at the large reservoir outside Havana but there was nothing new to see there so after a bite to eat we successfully skirted around Havan and I took over driving the long and not-at-all-winding four lane autopista to its end at a town call Taguasco. We passed field after field of sugar cane or banana or rough grazing, dodged the locals trying to sell you their cheese as you hurtle past but saw few birds along the way - Northern Harrier being the best.
We joined the old carreta central and it was thankfully free of large lorries. At Ciego de Avila we came across road works - as you do - the 'bollard' was about three feet in front of the men working and, later on we came across a new patch of wet tar which we avoided like the rest of the traffic by randomly driving on the other carriageway - MAD! About 5pm we'd reached the base of the causeway over to the cays; our passports were checked and we were on our way and very, very soon enjoying a 'Magnificent' birthday present.
Along with the Magnificent Frigatebirds were Royal Terns, a few Laughing Gulls and thousands of distant American Flamingos - and very few potholes!
So this is what a Caribbean holiday is meant to be like........
Not on your nelly! There were birds to be had! We planned to start early at the "Wild Boar Park" where there were some drinking pools in amongst the dense forest of the cays at which we might get a glimpse of all sorts of birds including Key-West Quail Dove and Zapata Sparrow.
Without too much more of ado, we got to the first destination in time to see lots of birds - Oriente Warbler were very noisy and conspicuous along with Todys, Western Spindalis, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Emerald and all manner of American warblers.
Cuban Bullfinch Cuban Emerald
There was no sign of the doves or sparrow in three hours of scanning but it was certainly a great morning's birding. We tried another location nearby where the sparrow had been seen on previous trips but still we drew a blank though a pool en route produced a few waders including Stilt Sandpipers.
A visit to a nearby beach produces more Frigatebirds and this very obliging Cuban Black Hawk!
Cuban Black Hawk
After lunch we sat out the heat of the day before heading west to Cayo Guillermo. The stretch of sand between the two cays was stuffed with birds and we found several species of wader for the trip list (and a couple of lifers too!). There were lots of Semi-palmated Plovers, Semi-Palmated, Western and Least Sandpipers, Willets, Short-billed Dowitchers, Dunlin, Turnstone and a lone Hudsonian Whimbrel.
And then there were the herons - Reddish, Tri-coloured, Little Blue, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, etc. Just wish this place was nearer the hotel. We had to press on as time was against us and we needed to search out a Bahama Mockingbird.
To say we timed things rather tightly would be an understatement but having searched though umpteen Northern Mockingbirds we re-traced our steps to an area below a lookout post and there we or rather Mark found the target bird, Bahama Mockingbird - it gave us tantalising views, not like the Northerns sitting on top of bushes but see it we did!
The only thing left was to head for a
lagoon next to one of the hotels in the rapidly dimming light which was also
stuffed with birds - Flamingos, Stilts,
Blue-winged Teal, Sora and Clapper Rails to name but a few. 76 species for the day and the
trip list growing already to a very respectable 126.
Today it was Robs turn to have is Birthday so it was off to Cayo Romano for yet more birding via what was supposed to be a rather dodgy bridge. Fortunately for us, they'd built the best bridge in the country - leading, on the face of it to nowhere, the road blocked by a metal chain. There were more gulls and herons here but we needed to head off to an area near the lighthouse where we found our target species really quickly. Cuban Gnatcatchers were in the first bit of scrub we came to (and then were prominent all along the path) and Thick-billed Vireos were singing all over the place.
flew overhead and Crested Caracaras
Magnificent Frigatebird Crested Caracara
On our way back we enjoyed more of the Cuban avifauna with Cuban Pewees again prominent and - a Lesser Black-backed Gull? No, two LBBGs!
We learnt later that one of the LBBGs (with a gamy foot) had been present a number of years. After our now customary siesta/chill time we tried for the Zapata Sparrow again but again failed miserably. Anyway it was 80 species for the day and 137 for the trip.
The guys got up early enough on our last day to finally get to grips with the Yellow-crowned Night Heron and so we set off for a final attempt at the Sparrow and Quail Dove which was only partially successful as Rob got the latter on the deck whilst Mark and I had flight views only. And still no sign of the sparrows. So after a quick breakfast (yes, food!!!) we checked out of our relatively luxurious accommodation but not before enjoying close views of several Cuban Martins. We then headed south-east to the other side of Camaguey and the finca at La Belen.
The drive was relatively uneventful until the last 30km which took us an hour and a half. Before that we'd passed through several countries and US states including Florida.
Once we arrived at La Belen, we were allowed through the gates and started birding immediately - new birds came thick and fast; exciting ones like Plain Pigeon and Cuban Crow!!!! Actually, the calls of the Cuban Crows were something else as they sound more like gobbling turkeys giving a weird atmosphere to the place.
Soon we were seeing Cuban Rose-throated Parrots, Cuban Parakeets and Giant Kingbirds not to mention more warblers and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak for good measure - and all that just before it got dark. This turned out to be our biggest total day with 84 species and 145 for the trip.
The next day we had our first guide - a requirement for birding off-piste as it were. However we were already storming through the endemics here seeing Cuban Pygmy Owl before breakfast so there were just a couple more to see. Camillo was a lovely chap; knew his birds and the English bird names but spoke no English. Actually no-one here spoke any English so it was up to me to try and converse with everyone. We didn't get quite what we thought we'd get for dinner but it was food and edible!
Cuban Pygmy Owl
The birds continued to show well in this very dry area of the country that hadn't seen any rain for 12 months. Lots of woodpeckers, kingbirds and crows plus our first Limpkins and Cowbirds (eventually!).
We left the area after two nights here. Not all that many species but definite quality. Today we had another long drive to the Zapata area where we were to spend the final few days of our holiday. A marshy pool en-route gave us some more new birds for the trip in the form of Black-crowned Night Heron and Northern Jacana, the latter a bird I thought we'd see more of.
After another marathon journey we reached our final stop on our birding tour of Cuba - Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs. A thunderstorm was brewing and a few Frigatebirds had been displaced up to the head of the bay where our accommodation was.
The trip list now stood at 153 and four full days around Playa Larga on the Bay of Pigs promised even more!
The Casa Particular we stayed at was small but comfy. They served wonderful food and was the best value for money we had on the trip. Egrets at breakfast!
We were on the world famous Zapata Peninsula where there are large tracts of unspoilt woodland and marsh - you can't get anywhere near most of it but all the special birds of the area could be found within a few miles of Playa Larga. However that few miles could and did take ages to cover as the tracks we went down were, well, I was amazed the car came back in one piece.
As at La Belen, it is mandatory to have a guide if you go off the main roads in the area. Ours was Angel - he asked us for a list of the birds we wanted to see and we set off! First target Quail Doves and Bee Hummingbird. We didn't drive far but then had a long walk down innumerable dark forest tracks, not the best places to take pictures but there were plenty of birds around. We heard Blue-headed Quail Dove (the rarest one) but were thwarted at every turn. However our mood was enlivened when we stopped at a glade with a bare tree and on top of that tree was the diminutive Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world trilling out its song.
Having enjoyed two males and a female in the area we carried on along the path; I looked down a ride that was perpendicular to us and there was a Blue-headed Quail Dove at the end smartly moving away to cover - and another that went in the other direction. Wow! Lucky or what? We waited ages to be rewarded with a couple of Grey-headed Quail Doves (the commonest here) and then a little further round, a lone Ruddy Quail Dove that sat motionless (most peculiar for this genus it seems).
Blue-headed Quail Dove Grey-headed Quail Dove
Yellow-headed Warblers were common here so I finally caught up that species. We headed back to the Casa as it was getting rather warm but the forest floor was moving. Millions of Red Land Crabs migrate to the coast at this time of year to lay their eggs - they started to move around midday and by the mid afternoon they were everywhere. This led to carnage on the roads, and the stench of crab in the air where the main crossings were. We'd been told to be careful as the shells are sharp and there had been lots of ripped tyres, best trick is to follow a lorry or coach as they don't care.
After our afternoon break we headed out again in search of owls and successfully saw Cuban Screech (Bare-legged) and another Fernandina's Flicker nest but that was about it. In terms of species count, this was our lowest day with just 51 but our trip list was now at a rather impressive 159.
Cuban Screech Owl
'Twas an earlier start today in order to try and get Cuban Nightjar on the road down to Latuga where we hoped to see more endemics. Unfortunately there were no nightjars and it seemed that when we got to the Zapata Wren site, there were none of them showing either. We could hear a couple but Angel's tape lure just wasn't working. So I tried the call on my iPhone and hey presto! Relatively great views of this very localised and secretive species. I didn't manage any photos but with a bit of luck Mark will have one (he's far quicker on the draw - I'm too busy trying to find the bird!).
Anyway there were a few Red-shouldered Blackbirds in the area (and Tawnies just to confuse) as we headed off to the site for the sparrows. We were basically on a track surrounded by deep ditches that led off to all point of a huge expanse of Sawgrass bog. We searched for the sparrows but to no avail - was this species going to be our bogey bird having missed it at Cayo Coco where it's meant to be "Common". We eventually gave in and returned to the woods at Soplillar to search for stuff we'd not seen yet - a Stygian Owl was definitely the best bird along with a few more Grey-headed Quail Doves. We searched for another endemic - Gundlachs's Hawk, a rare but widely distributed large Sparrowhawk essentially. That too was proving to be difficult!
After a long afternoon's repose, we set
off for Cuban Nightjar and when it
was virtually completely dark we heard them singing and managed to get some
silhouette views as they flew over us.
So Monday was a make or break day for the remaining endemics and our last day with Angel. We were also joined by Andy Mitchel who'd concluded his organised group trip and informed us that they too hadn't seen Zapata Sparrow at Cayo Coco nor Cuban Grassquit. So we set off down a horrendous track leading out into the marsh - 23km or so that took a long time. However, once we'd got into the marshy bit proper there was the promise of birds. Plenty of egrets and herons around but eventually we found our quarry and Zapata Sparrow was added to the list.
We had a lovely Wilson's Snipe on the return leg and Rob had brief views of a rail sp.!!! But it was interminable bumpy roads again for an hour or so and then a trip to Soplillar again for that hawk. Angel took us to a nest site but there were no birds around and though we tried the following day, it was to be the only endemic that we had a chance of seeing that we didn't. However Mark spotted a Swainson's Warbler in a dense area of woodland that was part of a mixed warbler flock - a rarity but one can only wonder how many are missed as it was very difficult to pick up. We were all very happy with that lifer when I saw a bright yellow head - "Blue-winged Warbler!". Rob had been desperate to see this species and Mark and I had previously seen them in Canada, but what a stonker and amazingly difficult to pick up despite its brighter colours.
We said our farewells to Angel and did a spot of birding along the road in the afternoon but there just weren't the birds to be seen - just loads of crabs to crunch over!
We managed to arrange for another guide for our final day to take us down to Salinas - most weren't bothering as it had been so dry but we had lots of good views of some waterbirds and added a few more to the list including Wood Stork and American White Pelican.
Our final trip was to search for the hawk again but to no avail, however we were taken to the back garden in Palpate where we had wonderful close views of a female Bee Hummingbird - and Mark got a pic!
The trip to the airport on Wednesday was interesting - we scoured the area around the Crocodile Farm for warblers but it was to be our only day that we didn't add a new bird to the trip list which stood in the end at a very impressive 172. I'd got 89 lifers and some great experiences. We took our time getting back going through villages and taking in the dry Cuban countryside.
American Purple Gallinulel
If you're thinking of going to Cuba, then do it. I get the feeling things are changing and it might not be for the better. Apart from the hugely expensive car hire and expensive hotels on the cays, it's a good value birding trip - perhaps not as many species as in South America but a pace you can enjoy. I felt extremely safe wherever we went and the people were very friendly, especially the further away from Havana you go. Thanks, Cuba for some memorable birds!
All Images taken by Mark Breaks, Copyright - © Breaks Bird Photography