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What an amazing country! Not only is it full of endemics, wider Caribbean specials, and North American migrants, but these birds can be cleaned up on quite easily, while enjoying the pleasant climate, vibrant culture, 16th century Spanish architecture, stylish old American cars from the 50’s, and some of the world’s best snorkeling during lunch time siestas.
The top handful of birds:
Bee Hummingbird, many brilliant views of the smallest bird on earth, weighing less than the water in half a teaspoon (1.6 – 1.9 grams),
Fernandina’s Flicker and other magnificent woodpeckers,
Stygian Owl, fabulous views of this as well as the two Cuban endemic owl species,
many great warblers including three endemic beauties. Full trip list
Above is our usual Caribbean tour – on the current trip we did not do Jamaica but went further west in Cuba than usual – right to the westernmost tip of the island (Guanahacabibes Peninsula). From 2015 onwards, we’re adding the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, and Saint Lucia
Our planet’s smallest bird, Bee Hummingbird (photo Ken Borrie)
Our hotel in Havana (photo Ken Borrie)
Day 1, February 1st. Havana to San Diego de los Baños
After spending the previous day (before the trip itself started) in the incomparable old part of Havana, we had a relaxed start, heading westwards to San Diego de los Baños, looking for common birds en route. Before we even left Havana, though, we spent some time looking at Cuban Martin, Red-legged Thrush, Cuban Blackbird, Royal Tern, the absolutely abundant Turkey Vulture, and others. Enjoying the pleasant coastal drive as we headed out of the capital city and eventually into the mountains of the Sierra de los Órganos, we made several productive birding stops, adding our first water-associated birds, such as Least Sandpiper, Brown Pelican, and many others. Arriving at the Hotel Mirador (where we would overnight) in time for lunch, we enjoyed our first Antillean Palm Swift and Cuban Emerald hummingbird, both of them up close and personal (the former were flying around their roosts in the thatch above the lunch table, and the latter were all around the hedge in front of us as we enjoyed beers during our lunch-time “siesta”). After our lunch-time break, we checked our Cuban Grassquit spot, finding Gundlach’s Hawk nice and early in the trip – this is one of the toughest Cuban endemics to find and usually needs loads of time and effort (plus a large dose of luck) – finding the bird on the first day of the tour bought us time! We also found West Indian Woodpecker and some other nice birds here.
We then headed out to the well-known Hacienda Cortina/La Güira National Park. Like a great many areas in Cuba, the ruins and sprawling, well-wooded estate of the wealthy politician José Manuel Cortina is not only a brilliant birding site, but also a beautiful and fascinating historical place. Walking around the vast, overgrown estate generated great birds. We found Least Grebe, lots of Smooth-billed Anis, our first of many Cuban Trogons (this bizarrely unique and fabulously gorgeous trogon is Cuba’s national bird and is common and easy to see throughout the island), Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban (Crescent-eyed) Pewee, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, stacks of Red-legged Thrush, the endemic Olive-capped Warbler (in a tiny patch of pines), our first pretty little Yellow-faced Grassquit, Cuban Oriole, dazzling Western Spindalis, and loads more. We also found our first picking of overwintering wood warblers, starting with the common ones, such as the abundant Palm Warbler and American Redstart.
Not too rough a day in paradise – loads of great birds while simply having fun.
Cuban Oriole (photo Alan van Norman from a previous tour)
Day 2, February 2nd. La Güira and the Guanahacabibes peninsula
After an early breakfast we headed for the picturesque Cuevas de los Portales. Here we visited Che Guevara’s hideout cave, where we also found the absolutely tiny Gervais’s funnel-eared bat as well as the much larger Jamaican fruit bat, and loads of Cave Swallows. Near the cave we found our main avian target with its beautiful, haunting song, Cuban Solitaire. The woods proved excellent for warblers, including Cape May Warbler, very attractive Black-throated Green Warbler, and our first of many Northern Parula. Scaly-naped Pigeon, the quite abundant yet characterful and massive Great Lizard Cuckoo, our first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (another northern migrant), and the immaculate Cuban subspecies of Northern Flicker were also seen here. We found or first of numerous Cuban Pygmy Owls.
After a successful session at the caves, we eventually headed back to our Cuban Grassquit site and soon got saturation views of this beautiful little stonker. Unfortunately, it has become very rare and localized because of the cage bird trade.
We then drove to the westernmost extremity of Cuba, the Guanahacabibes peninsula, adding star birds en route, such as loads of herons (all kinds of species from tiny to massive), Northern Jacana, Cuban Black Hawk, and American Kestrel (really common, both the beautiful white morph and the red morph).
A short walk at the Guanahacabibes National Park office was incredible: here we had our first of many sightings of Cuban Tody (what a dazzlingly gorgeous, tiny little bird, a representative of a whole family endemic to the Caribbean), and a Blue-headed Quail-Dove on the trail in front of us! This unique dove is one of the toughest Cuban endemics to find!
A fascinating series of caves – near here is where Che Guevara made his hideout, and Cuban Solitaire can be heard from where the photo was taken.
We arrived at our next hotel, María la Gorda in Pinar del Río, just before dark, and were lucky enough to be serenaded by our first Cuban Crow. Cuba actually has remarkably low numbers of crows compared to many other parts of the world, and one can go for days without seeing any.
Day 3, February 3rd. Guanahacabibes National Park, transfer to Zapata
Birding in the national park was excellent! We visited the park office again to try and re-find the Blue-headed Quail-Dove, but a couple of us were instead rewarded with close-up Magnolia Warbler (all of us caught up with this species later) and perhaps the best views of Bee Hummingbird of the trip, the bird feeding almost on the ground on some low flowers right in front of our feet. We also drove into the park itself and saw the beautiful Cuban (Rose-throated) Amazon (Parrot), American White Ibis, the endemic Yellow-headed Warbler (a Cuban endemic genus), Cuban Bullfinch, Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Semipalmated Plover, and other new trip birds.
After a good morning session of birding we embarked on a long drive to Cuba’s premier birding site, Zapata Swamp and the “Bay of Pigs”, stopping for a break at an excellent orchid sanctuary, where Ken and Anne did a guided tour and the rest of us did some birding. It was a long drive that took the rest of the day – we had to travel back through the outskirts of Havana, then eastwards, eventually through the one-horse town of Australia (!), and finally southwards to Playa Larga, where we would spend five nights.
Day 4, February 4th. Birding Zapata – La Turba, Soplillar, and Las Salinas
An early morning start to the swamp itself at La Turba for some of Cuba’s tougher endemics did not disappoint! Zapata Wren worked us hard, but we eventually all obtained brilliant views of it. Zapata Sparrow took a little searching for, but after a while we were rewarded with very close views of an individual restfully feeding besides us. Red-shouldered Blackbird also took a little patience, at least to get views of a stunning male instead of the duller females.
We were left with adequate time to visit Soplillar before lunch and were richly rewarded with a series of new trip birds, including Bare-legged Owl (Cuban Screech Owl), Stygian Owl at its day time roost (Cuba is a surprisingly easy place to find this otherwise tricky owl), White-eyed Vireo, Cuban Vireo, Grey Catbird, bright yellow Prairie Warbler, lovely Black-and-white Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and a lot of others.
As on most days, we took a break for a couple of hours during the heat of the day – for snorkeling, swimming, or sleeping!
A pleasant afternoon drive out to Las Salinas Wildlife Sanctuary and its mangroves yielded American White Pelican, white and blue morph Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, all three of Cuba’s Egret species (Great, Reddish, and Snowy), Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, exquisite Roseate Spoonbill, large flocks of equally spectacular American Flamingo (particularly beautiful in flight), Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon (a “write-in”), Northern Shoveler, a surprise Red-breasted Merganser, Western Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Grey (Black-bellied) Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Gull-billed Tern, and Black Skimmer. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker performed well at its usual tree.
In the evening, back in the very birdy hotel grounds, we obtained brilliant views of a roosting Cuban Nightjar and also saw Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
American Flamingo (photo Ken Borrie)
The endemic Yellow-headed Warbler was seen at many different sites during the tour. (Photo Alan van Norman from a previous tour)
The localized Olive-capped Warbler was, on the other hand, only seen once. (Photo Alan van Norman from a previous tour)
Cape May Warbler is visiting from the north: we saw a brilliant selection of migrant warblers on this tour. (Photo Alan van Norman from a previous tour)
A day-roosting Stygian Owl digiscoped, using an iPhone and the Swarovski scope
Day 5, November 5th. Bermejas, Playa Girón museum, Soplillar
We started the day at dawn at a blind (hide) near Bermejas that has been set up especially for quail-dove viewing. We were by no means disappointed with our excellent sightings of Grey-fronted Quail-Dove and Key West Quail-Dove, along with Zenaida Dove and Common Ground Dove, but we failed to see another Blue-headed Quail-Dove – we did want to improve upon our sighting we had had in the far west. Ovenbird (here nicknamed “señorita del monte” or “lady of the forest” because of its sophisticated way of walking), was much in evidence on the trail in front of the blind, along with the doves. And in the trees above the trail was our first Black-throated Blue Warbler (yet another beautiful wood-warbler).
Nearby we found White-crowned Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Cuban Parakeet, and Indigo Bunting.
We then went to nearby Playa Girón, where we visited the museum about the Bay of Pigs invasion, and eventually drove back to Playa Larga for lunch, not without admiring Cueva de los Peces and other incredible diving sites: here one can literally step into the sea and immediately snorkel over fabulous, unspoiled coral reefs without any need to take a boat, or one can snorkel within an open cave!
After our lunch-time siesta, we went back to Soplillar but did not find many new trip birds, the highlight being our first Worm-eating Warbler.
Day 6, November 6th. Continued birding around Zapata
In the morning we found the stunning Fernandina’s Flicker near its roost palm tree. Yellow-throated Vireo was a good addition.
In the afternoon we all obtained brilliant views of Blue-headed Quail-Dove! Hooray! We had heard them in the morning and spent some time looking, but until now unsuccessfully.
Cuban Trogon was seen almost daily during this tour. (Photo Alan van Norman from a previous tour)
From right to left Mario, David, and Chris, in our bird-rich hotel gardens at Playa Larga, which we called home for five nights.
Day 7, November 7th. Final Zapata birding
In the morning we headed out to Soplillar once more, again enjoying all the species we by now had become so familiar with, and adding a couple of new ones, such as Yellow-throated Warbler.
In the afternoon we decided to bird Las Salinas again, as it’s a very enjoyable place to see masses of water-associated birds. We did add some new birds, such as Wood Stork and Northern Harrier, to our burgeoning list. All in all, we had such great luck early on in the trip (with tough species such as Zapata Wren, Gundlach’s Hawk, and others seen early), that we were left with more than enough time at Zapata, and we were now rearing to start the next two days of cultural touring and sightseeing, before reverting to birding again.
We saw this at Las Salinas, which appears to be a king anole.
Fernandina’s Flicker (photo Alan van Norman from a previous tour)
Day 8, November 8th. Drive to Trinidad via Cienfuegos.
This was a built-in sightseeing day, as we wanted to experience the amazing architecture, vibrant markets, and beautiful bays of some of the smaller towns (in addition to Havana at the start and end of the tour). Thalia, our excellent cultural guide, gave us fabulous city tours – she was a constant wealth of knowledge about Cuban culture and history.
Day 9, November 9th. Sightseeing en route to Camagüey
This was another fabulous history and culture, rather than a birding, day. However, we did find Cuban Emerald on a nest, right outside the hotel restaurant window.
Louise wanted to drive this!
Day 10, February 10th. Birding Najasa, transfer to Cayo Coco
After some awesome sightseeing days we made an early start to bird Najasa Ranch. What a place it proved to be! Woodpeckers abounded, and we got multiple close-up views of the beautiful Cuban Green Woodpecker, West Indian Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker, as well as brilliant views of our main target birds, Plain Pigeon, Giant Kingbird, and Cuban Palm Crow (along with masses of Cuban Crows, constantly noisy). We also got fabulous views of Red-legged Honeycreeper and stacks more of the common Cuban endemics, including such gorgeous birds as Cuban Trogon and Cuban Tody.
We then went to a stable, seeing the really strange Limpkin on the way, and while the vehicle was taken to get some paperwork done, we were treated not only to Shiny Cowbird and Northern Crested Caracara, but also to an amazing show by cowboys herding horses and an ox-cart delivering horse food. Cuba really does seem to be a place in which time stands still, and one feels constantly amazed by what one sees!
Last but not least, we enjoyed Eastern (Cuban) Meadowlark, a unique Cuban subspecies of this beautiful species.
In the late morning, we eventually started heading to Cayo Coco, which is an idyllic satellite island north of the main island, connected to the “mainland” by an impressive 27 km long causeway. Before checking in at the all-inclusive luxury hotel we were to spend two nights at, we checked Thalia’s Mangrove Cuckoo site, and found one! Sadly, not everyone in the group saw it.
Day 11, February 11th. Birding Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Paredón Grande
Were we going to see the final Cuban endemics? We’d done so well until now, cleaning up on everything, so would we manage to keep up our track record for the last birding day of the tour? I felt the pressure, as we had several birds to find today to complete our quota of Cuban endemics and wider Caribbean specials. Although, having said that, the wonderful group of four tour participants from Vancouver kept reminding me they did not mind if they missed something! Anyway, we started the morning with a trip to Cayo Guillermo (several of these smaller cays or islands are connected by shorter causeways to the main one, Cayo Coco). It did not take us long to pick through a couple of the abundant and widespread Northern Mockingbirds to find two pairs of the much rarer and very localized Bahama Mockingbird; we ended up with brilliant views of this species, as the birds seemed just as interested in us as we were in them! We then returned to the hotel, where our site guide already had a small flock of West Indian Whistling Ducks staked out for us. And before lunch we visited some further sites, where we found Oriente Warbler and other star birds.
The afternoon was wonderful, as we obtained great views of our final endemic, Cuban Gnatcatcher, which surely must be the most attractive gnatcatcher species, along with great views of Clapper Rail, a different subspecies of Cuban Green Woodpecker, and last but not least up close and personal Thick-billed Vireo.
With our early starts, sometimes we’d need multiple cups of coffee!
Day 12, February 12th. Drive back to Havana.
We embarked on the long drive back to Havana, dropping the four Canadians at a casa particular just east of the city, a private family establishment that provides paid lodging, where they could experience what it was like to stay with a Cuban family for two days. Chris flew home, while the others then also spent a couple of extra nights in Havana, including a city tour with Thalia.
Our driver Zamora was one of the staff members who made this tour so successful, with his great humor and impeccable driving ability.
A fantastic team – Ken and Anne on the left, David at the back, Louise at the front right, Zamora (see previous photo), and our cultural guide and logistics whiz Thalia, with Chris on the right.
“Convertible Pesos”, the money tourists use in Cuba (photo Ken Borrie)
Cuban Tody– we saw this almost daily! (Photo Ken Borrie)