“Look,” I pointed out of the window to my friend Bonnie, “our first Cuban birds.” Two Turkey Vultures were dipping over the edge of the airport in Santa Clara, Cuba. “The adventure begins.”
I was visiting Cuba for 10 days with my friends Bonnie, Don and Sue as part of a combined birding and people-to-people trip with Naturalist Journeys. Throughout the tour we saw many different parts of Cuba, saw amazing birds, met a lot of talented and knowledgeable local birders and other local people.
After going through customs and changing money, we met Gustavo, our Cuban National Guide, and Santa Clara-based driver Alexander, and then boarded our modern, Chinese-made tour bus to start our adventure.
While waiting in the courtyard until it was time for our buffet lunch at Los Caneyes, Antillean Palm Swifts zipped overhead and we saw our first Cuban endemic – Cuban Blackbird.
While exploring the grounds after lunch, several Red-legged Thrush, a regional endemic, pranced in the garden in robin-like behavior.
A number of North American wintering warblers flitted in the trees, including our daily Palm Warbler and almost daily American Redstart.
As we drove towards Cayo Coco, our Naturalist Journeys guide, Peg Abbott, shared information about island biogeography – how their isolation affects the evolution of species.
When we stopped for an afternoon break, we were able to see Cuban Pewee – and a few of the group were lucky to see a Cuban Oriole (I saw mine later).
It was late afternoon when we finally arrived on the island of Cayo Coco, part of the Jardines del Rey archipelago, reached by a 17 mile causeway. The following day we would start exploring a variety of the archipelago’s habitats, including coastal scrub and mangroves.
Early the next morning we met our local guide, Oody, and headed out for some before-breakfast birding. We swatted mosquitoes at our first stop, the Cayo Coco sewage lagoons, where we hoped to see West Indian Whistling Duck. None were present. Only a few species were waking up in the ponds, including Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal, Black-necked Stilt, and a couple of American Coots.
Our next stop was Cueva del Jabali. While most folks go there in the evening, when the bats keep the mosquitoes down, for the occasional night club show, in the early morning there were no party-goers – and also unfortunately no bats. Oody threw some unhulled rice in two areas and then called in a Cuban Tody. While the tody made only a brief appearance, the diminutive and colorful puff ball was as spectacular as the cover photo on The Field Guide to the birds of Cuba.
In a grotto area a Key West Quail Dove bobbed in for some rice. A Zenaida Dove was lurking behind it.
We walked and birded along a road where we were able to observe another Cuban endemic, the Cayo Coco race of the Zapata Sparrow. At another location I was able to get a photo of a Greater Antillean Grackle, a bird we would see frequently across Cuba.
Just before returning for breakfast, we stopped and walked out to a lagoon where Sue spotted a lone West Indian Whistling Duck.
After breakfast we all loaded into the van to explore the birds on the island of Cayo Paredon Grande. We were successful in observing several Cuban endemics, including – Oriente Warbler.
While we frequently saw Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in Cuba, this was the only location for Cuban Gnatcatcher.
Another endemic was Cuban Vireo. When the vireo vocalized, it had a distinctive vireo sing-songy voice.
We stopped at a lagoon to check out the shorebirds and were lucky to see a Roseate Spoonbill,
as well as a number of other waders and shorebirds, including the White Ibis, or Coco, after which the Cayo Coco is named. At one point we observed a Crested Caracara and a Magnificent Frigatebird.
Our final stop of the morning was near the Faro (lighthouse) Paredon where we hoped to see a Bahama Mockingbird, found on Cuba only on this archipelago, but were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, its habitat is rapidly diminishing.
“This lighthouse was important during the Spanish-American War,” Gustavo told us.
“One of my grandfather’s was in Cuba at the end of the Spanish-American War,” I told Gustavo. “Unfortunately, I don’t know much except from his military records,” I replied when Gustavo wanted to know whether I knew him. “He died when I was very young.”
There are two races of American Kestrel in Cuba – white breasted and brown-breasted. A white-breasted one was perched near the top of the lighthouse.
After lunch we headed to Cayo Guillermo, the northernmost key.
“There’s a hawk on a rock,” someone called from the back of the bus and the guide had the driver pull over and backup. A Cuban Black Hawk was perched next to the water on a large rock. There wasn’t room to get out, so we tried to take photos as best we could from the bus windows.
While the Cuban Black Hawk, now a separate species from Common Black Hawk, is fairly common in certain locations, its habitat is being drained and developed, and considered by BirdLife International to be Near Threatened.
At a briny lagoon at Cayo Guillermo, there were about 15 American Flamingos. I was thrilled. While I had seen many that are resident at zoos, this was my first sighting in their natural habitat.
Evidence of development was everywhere, including huge construction cranes and paragliders.
As dusk was approaching, we birded along the road towards the end of the peninsula, where a Bahama Mockingbird was occasionally glimpsed in the low scrubby bushes, and only a couple in the group saw a Black-faced Grassquit that blended into the fading light.
As we headed back to our rooms to get our bags the next morning, Bonnie pointed out the nest of a Cuban Emerald that one of the gardeners had shown her when he saw her with her binoculars. He had tied the leaves of a palm together to better support the nest. It was in a very public and vulnerable area.
We said goodbye to Cayo Coco and headed to Trinidad. Sue and I were sitting towards the back of the bus and couldn’t hear the conversation in the front of the bus. Suddenly the bus pulled over and Gustavo announced that crows had been sighted. We all got out of the bus to try and determine whether they were Cuban or Palm Crows. By time we all trouped off the bus, they had flown across a field and we enjoyed some Smooth-billed Ani along the side of the road across from the bus,
and a bull with its Cattle Egret pal. Cattle Egrets could be found across Cuba.
The crows returned and it was determined that while the Palm Crow was rare, there were a couple in the mixed flock, identified by its voice.
A short distance down the road we stopped at a look-out spot above the Valle de Los Ingenios.
While Trinidad was one of our cultural days, we were delighted to see a number of Curly-tailed Lizards around the plaza.
In the late afternoon, we headed up into the Sierra de Escambray to Topes de Collantes for two nights.
After breakfast the next morning, we boarded the bus and drove down the hill a short distance to the Jardin de Gigantes where we met up with Luis, our knowledgeable local guide.
Before heading into the preserve, we were able to view Cuban Parrots,
and Loggerhead Kingbird,
as well as Yellow-faced Grassquit,
and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird.
“Cubans love singing birds and many people have them in cages,” Luis told us. “Their favorites are Yellow-faced Grassquit and Cuban Bullfinch. They often have contests where people gamble on which bird will be deemed the best singer.”
Along the trail we encountered a number of wintering warblers, as well as a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, one of Cuba’s winter visitors. We had more looks at a Cuban Tody and Cuban Trogon. When the trail came out at a road, there were a couple of men sitting there.
“These are park rangers,” Gustavo told us. “They are trying to prevent poachers.”
“How did you learn about birds?” I asked Gustavo as we walked back. “From all of you,” he replied referring to birding tour groups. “I often have the privilege of leading groups of birders and learn something from each group. One of the groups gave me binoculars,” he added, smiling broadly.
In addition, to knowing how to identify the local birds and where to find them, he has learned their calls and songs. We were extremely fortunately he was our Cuban National Guide.
When we returned, Luis, who grew up on a nearby coffee farm, told us about the stages of coffee beans
and we were able to enjoy cups of strong brew.
In the afternoon we visited the home of a local farmer and his family. “Many in this family have red hair,” chuckled Gustavo, who has nick-named them the “Colorados.” Peg, our red-haired guide from Naturalist Journeys, posed with them.
They also happened to have a number of endemic bird species that visit their property, including Cuban Trogon, the national bird,
and Cuban Oriole.
The next morning we drove from Topes de Collantes towards the Bay of Pigs area, stopping in the province of Matanzas at Refugio de Fauna Bermeja, where a local guide met us.
The first stop was a blind where we were lucky to have a Blue-headed Quail Dove wander into the trail beyond the blind. It was starting to drizzle and we were able to take a few pictures under the protection of the trees.
As we traversed further into the refuge, it started raining harder and harder and water was dripping off my poncho. After we gathered around a bare-topped palm, the guide tapped on the edge of the tree and a Cuban Screech Owl, now called Bare-legged Owl, popped his head out. Bonnie was able to quickly take her camera out from under her jacket and capture a photo of the soggy owl.
By time we had trekked back, the rain had let up and it was time to search for the Cuban Parakeet and Bee Hummingbird.
The Bee Hummingbird is often found on the property of a local farmer who has devised an ingenious ‘wheelchair’ device. Peg, who speaks Spanish, visited with him while Gustavo scoured the area for the hummingbird.
The Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world at 2.5 inches, finally appeared. After flitting from flower to flower, it eventually perched in plain view.
In the same area were some Cuban Bullfinches.
We then walked across a trail to a village where a local resident told Gustavo where we could find a Great Lizard Cuckoo. Every time I watched one of these large cuckoos, I was reminded of the gangly antics of Greater Roadrunners that I see in my yard and elsewhere in New Mexico.
“The parakeets are often found along the road,” Gustavo told us. We walked around searching for them, but could not find any.
After lunch in Bahia de los Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), we went up to the restaurant’s rooftop to learn about the biodiversity of the Zapata Swamp and National Park. The Cienega de Zapata is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is also a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. We would not have time to visit the swamp, home to the Zapata Wren and very secretive Zapata Rail and the chances of seeing them would be very slim.
After checking into our accommodations at Playa Larga, Gustavo was able to locate a local guide, Armando, who took us on a bird walk in the nearby area.
We walked along a dirt road used by local farmers.
Among the new species I saw on this walk included Cuban Pygmy Owl,
Cuban Green Woodpecker and
West Indian Woodpecker.
“There is a Stygian Owl that often perches near a seaside palm,”
Peg told us at dinner. “Unfortunately, it normally doesn’t make an appearance until around 11 pm.” It was much too late for this birder.
We were up early and a local guide took us birding along the highway where we saw many now-familiar Cuban specialties, as well as neotropical migrants.
After breakfast we traveled north towards Havana in order to connect with the highway leading southeast to Soroa. Our day’s included some of the tour’s people-to-people activities and we arrived at Soroa, located in the Sierra del Rosario – an area with ponderosa-like pine trees, in the late afternoon.
“There is also a resident Stygian Owl here,” Peg told us that evening. “I talked with the security guard for the upper area and he says that it can often be heard near cabin 43.” Sue and I were in Cabin 6 and we decided we did not want a late night wake-up call from Peg if the guide located one as it would involve walking up steps in the dark.
Later, while driving towards Vinales, with its many mogotes (haystack-like hills),
we got good looks at a Grundlach Hawk circling over a field.
At Cueva del Indio, most of the group walked down a steep trail with no handrail in order to ride a boat along a stream that runs through the limestone cave,
Sue and I opted to protect our knees and bird around the cave area with Peg. We were on the lookout for a Cuban Solitaire, only found near the limestone cliffs,
but were unsuccessful. We finally had good views of the La Sagra Flycatcher, but no Cuban Solitaire. Later after boarding the bus, we noticed Gustavo was missing. Alexander, our bus driver, told Peg that Gustavo wanted to see if he could find the solitaire for us. Alexander drove us back to the cave entrance area where we found Gustavo scouting along the cliffs. As we approached, he beckoned to us excitedly. As we gathered close, we were able to see two solitaires moving around in the cliff-face thickets. Every once in a while they would move into view.
After lunch at an organic farm in Vinales, we went to the outskirts of town in search of Yellow-headed
and Olive-capped Warblers, both endemics. Gustavo was able to help us locate both of them in the pine trees. We also saw our only Yellow-rumped Warbler for the trip.
The next morning, several of us participated in an early morning walk as the birds were waking up. While there was nothing new, several in the group got another great view of the Cuban Trogon. After breakfast, we visited the nearby Orchid Garden. “The guide there is also a good birder,” Gustavo told us.
In addition to learning about their vast orchid and ornamental plant collection,
she pointed out bird species, enabling me to observe a number of species that had been elusive or that had not provided good views, including White-crowned Pigeon (the picture does not do the white crown justice)
and Scaly-naped Pigeon.
While standing on an outdoor patio over-looking a terraced part of the garden
enjoying music and drinking fresh juice, I finally was able to get a good look at a Western Spindalis.
We then headed to a local planned community, Las Terrazas – another UNESCO World Heritage site, for several people-to-people activities. At the end of these activities, our local cultural guide road with us to a local farm where Cuban Grassquit is often seen. After introducing us to the farmer, he went on his way.
“He heard the grassquit a short time ago,” Gustavo told us after talking with the farmer who asked us to wait nearby while he searched for it. He took off down an arroyo. A while later, he returned and shook his head and then headed up a slope. Gustavo urged us to move closer to the farmer. He then led us through the brush telling us he could hear it calling.
Pretty soon Gustavo located it and made sure that we all had good looks.
“Our primary birding for the trip is over,” Peg told us as we boarded the bus. We were heading for two cultural days in Havana.
However, at a rest stop along the way, we discovered Gustavo across the highway checking out a pond and marshy area and we walked across to join him. While observing a Purple Gallinule and Green Heron,
a flock of blackbirds flew in – Red-shouldered Blackbirds, our final regional endemic for the trip!
Of course, there were birds in Havana. Laughing Gulls swooped over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean bordering the city as we drove along the Malecon, Red-legged Thrushes prowled gardens, e.g. Hemingway’s House,
and Turkey Vultures patrolled overhead.
While waiting for our luggage to be loaded onto the bus on the last day of the trip, I wandered over to the nearby shore where a Great Egret was searching for food among the rocks.
I paused to reflect on the 16 (out of 21) Cuban endemics I had been fortunate to see.
And, to come full circle, my final bird species was a pair of Turkey Vultures enjoying carrion along the shore.