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CUBA - March - 2002

166  Bird Species recorded

Leaders   Steve Bird, Tim Marlow & Andy Mitchell

Photo: Cuban Screech-owl.

Cuban Screech-owl.

Day 1  2nd March

After meeting at Gatwick airport we found we had a 3 hour delay. Eventually we took off and after an uneventful direct flight we arrived at Havana, Cuba at about 11.00pm. We met our local Cuban guide who took us to our awaiting coach and onward to our first hotel.

Day 2   3rd March

After a very short sleep we awoke and had our breakfast. Feeling more refreshed we then boarded the coach and drove the short distance to the Vinales valley and parked beside a huge cliff face which was painted in gaudy colours. Over the grassy area beside us we watched lots of AntilleanPalm Swifts hunting very low giving excellent views. We then walked towards the scrub below the cliff where we could hear several Cuban Solitaires singing. It wasn't long before we found one and got excellent views of this our first Cuban endemic. In the same tree a beautiful pair of Western Stripe-headed Tanagers performed well. Moving on we slowly walked along the edge of some farm fields. A Greater Lizard Cuckoo was then spotted and everyone eventually got very good views of this bird sat in a tree above our heads. Palm Warblers were a common sight and everyone soon became familiar with the tail pumping jizz that was characteristic of this species. A Northern Parula was then found and while walking down a lane which was in constant use by groups of locals on their way to a cock fight, we found Yellow-faced Grassquits,Northern Mockingbirds and our first Cuban Blackbirds. Further along we got good scope views of Zenaida Dove and apart from the many Turkey Vultures and Cattle Egrets, a Little BlueHeron was also seen flying over. A small patch of woodland found us several more WesternStripe-headed Tanagers along with Red-legged Thrush. The next patch of wood however proved to be exceptional. Firstly up to four Cuban Bullfinches were seen well and then our first Yellow-headed Warblers appeared. The next half hour was electric as species appeared as if on a shopping trolley! Cuban Vireo hoped around the closest bush and then both CubanGreen Woodpecker, West Indian Woodpecker and Loggerhead Kingbird showed well. Just a few yards further into the wood and our first views of Cuban Trogon were immediately followed by a pair of exquisite Cuban Tody's and then a group of Cuban Grassquit's which included several stunning males in full breeding plumage.

Cuban Trogon
Cuban Trogon

A Grey Catbird, Ovenbird and NorthernParula were then seen and the Cuban Trogan's came closer and gave us amazingly good views. In an open area we then found a La Sagra's Flycatcher and on our return through the wood another Ovenbird, more Cuban Grassquits and then a Cuban Flycatcher. We then returned back to the coach finding a pair of Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds, before having a cool drink and going back to the hotel for lunch. After lunch we took it easy for an hour and then we drove to a nearby reservoir where we watched lots of Osprey's, and amongst the many Double-crestedCormorants a single Neotropic Cormorant and along the edges we had Great Egrets, and Great Blue Heron while further out a couple of Pied-billed Grebes where seen. Tim then spotted a close Cuban Emerald and we all got very good views of this little hummingbird. Leaving here we drove a short distance back towards the hotel and then stopped near a suitable looking area of pine trees. Here we soon found our target species the Olive-capped Warbler. We enjoyed good looks at several of these birds and then nearby a male Red-legged Honeycreeper posed for us in the sunlight. A slow walk back along the road then found us a couple of CommonYellowthroats, a male Prairie Warbler and amongst a group of Cattle Egrets was a single Snowy Egret. We were soon back at the hotel where we later met up for the evening roll-call and dinner.

Day 3   4th  March

We had an early breakfast and then had a little look around the hotel grounds before getting onto the coach. Several Common Ground-doves were seen and then in the nearby woods we watched Western Stripe-headed Tanagers and three or four Olive-capped Warblers. Leaving the hotel we drove towards our next destination. A Quick stop beside a huge lake we found a couple of Snail Kites, Green Herons and very distant Ruddy Ducks and Pied-billed Grebes. Moving on we eventually arrived at the pine forests of La Guira. It wasn't long before we were looking at a very close pair of Cuban Green Woodpeckers and a West Indian Woodpecker. In the close trees we watched a Yellow-throated Vireo and Cuban Trogon as well Cuban Pewee, and CubanBullfinch, Loggerhead Kingbird, Stripe-headed Tanager and the now common Red-legged Thrush. We then took a narrow track into the forest passing by some limestone cliffs, where at least four Cuban Trogan's were seen together. Moving through the forest we picked up a few species already seen, but out on the road edges we enjoyed excellent views of both Black-throated Green Warbler and very smart Black-whiskered Vireo. It then began to rain so we drove to a nearby hotel and had our lunch. It was decided that because of the time and the rain we would move on to our hotel in Soroa. We arrived here and unfortunately the weather had got worse and the rain was now being driven by quite strong winds. We unpacked the coach and settled into our rooms before meeting up at 4.00pm. Once assembled we made our way out of the hotel and down the road to a small stream. Here we watched a dull marked Louisiana Waterthrush before going into the woods and trying to find a little shelter. A snake was seen slipping through the undergrowth and beside an overlook at the top of a waterfall we waited and watched. Several White-crowned Pigeons were seen battling through the wind while below us American Redstarts, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Cuban Trogon and a very obliging Cuban Pewee were seen. Another much better marked Louisiana Waterthrush gave us some exceptionally close views, after which we took a walk back through the rain to the hotel. Just a couple of us had a short walk around the gardens and managed to find a couple of GreaterAntillean Orioles. We then returned to our rooms. During the night a Cuban Pygmy-owl could be heard calling, so we will try for this in the morning!

Day 4   5th March

Today was to be a day of travelling so we had a pre breakfast walk around the hotel gardens. Firstly we played the tape of Cuban Pygmy-owl but there was no response. We did get excellent views of White-crowned Pigeons plus a pair of American Kestrels which allowed us to compare the red and the white phase birds. Around the rest of the garden we found Cuban Trogon,Cuban Green Woodpecker, while several Black-whiskered Vireos could be heard singing. In an open area everyone got to see Greater Antillean Oriole, while beside the stream an Anole a strange looking lizard was found sat on a log by John. We then had our breakfast after which we loaded the coach and then set of on the long drive to Moron. This took all day and we finally arrived at our hotel around 5.00pm.

Day 5   6th March

After an early breakfast we headed towards the causeway that leads to Cayo Coco. We needed to get to the woods early so we never stopped along its 26 kilometres. However, a good selection of herons was seen as we sped past. Just before we reached our stop and we had a bit of disaster as the gears went on the coach. While the driver tried to fix it we wandered down the road. In the verge side scrub we found several Cape May Warblers,Western Stripe-headed Tanagers and stunning views of a Cuban Tody. Only fifteen minutes had past and the coach came trundling along. We boarded and continued to our stop. In the car park we soon found our first Oriente Warblers followed by a nice male Cape May several Palm Warblers, Grey Catbird, Red-leggedThrushes and then a Yellow-throated Vireo. A short walk through to an open area found us a Shiny Cowbird and a lovely male Yellow-throated Warbler. We then had fantastic close views of two Zapata Sparrows which are a threatened and localised endemic. After enjoying these star birds we slowly moved on to see what else we could find. Cuban Vireos were very evident and several Ovenbirds were seen creeping through the leaf litter. On another trail we found a small flock of warblers which included Black-and-white and a Worm-eating. There were lots of Oriente Warblers a La Sagra's Flycatcher and White-eyed Vireo. West Indian and Cuban Green Woodpeckers were present and another Cuban Tody was as ever a welcome sight. Back at the car park a Cuban Green Woodpecker was seen sticking his head out of a nest hole and another Yellow-throated Warbler and Northern Parula were seen. We then left and headed the short distance to Flamingo Beach where a superb seafood meal was cooked for us. Several interesting species were spotted including a Great White Heron a rare bird for the island and nearby Royal Terns, Brown Pelican and on a small muddy pool a Lesser Yellowlegs was seen. The ever vigilant John then found a superb Brown Booby flying past and resting on the beautiful turquoise sea.

 Leaving this area we then drove to Cayo Paredon Grande, making a short stop along the causeway here we found lots of Royal Terns, Great Egrets, Laughing Gulls and BrownPelicans. We then saw an adult and a first year Lesser Black-backed Gulls which are very rare birds for Cuba with just a handful of records. An adult Common Black Hawk was seen perched on the bank, a White Ibis flew away and amongst a group of Grey Plover were a few Turnstones, and above us a couple of Magnificent Frigatebirds drifted lazily by. We continued on until we reached the lighthouse and from here we took a slow walk along a track which passed through low scrub towards the beach. It was still a little hot so there was little activity. A few Oriente Warblers were seen and later we had excellent very close views of a pair of CubanGnatcatchers. Further on where it became wet we saw Willet, Reddish Egret and one or two Yellow Warblers. On the beach there was little to be found although a Least Sandpiper and a flock of Sanderling were new for the trip. It had now cooled down considerably so we returned through the scrubby track. Cuban Gnatcatchers were seen well again and then our other target bird a Thick-billed Vireo was after a bit of difficulty seen by everyone.   

Day 6   7th March

After an early breakfast we headed towards Cayo Coco and made a couple of stops along the causeway. The first stop gave us splendid views of the Caribbean race of Greater Flamingo and while looking at these bright red birds we also picked up many Red-breasted Mergansers and commoner heron species. Our next stop was beside a group of very photogenic RoseateSpoonbills and while watching these we also found a Belted Kingfisher and then a Clapper Rail, which was sat preening on the waters edge. Continuing on we eventually arrived at Cayo Paredon Grande and from the car park we took a slow walk out towards the beach. We found several showy Cuban Gnatcatchers and then two or three Thich-billed Vireos. On the beach it was rather quiet but a few of the group walked a bit further and found lots of Sanderling and Turnstone. In the scrub were Palm Warblers and on our return David spotted up a NorthernWaterthrush.

We got back to the coach late morning and then we drove back towards flamingo beach for lunch. While waiting for our lobster and seafood to be barbecued John managed to find the BrownBooby again. After lunch and a short siesta we drove the opposite way to Cayo Guillermo where we soon spotted our first Bahama Mockingbird from the coach. We got out and found several more and enjoyed excellent close views alongside Northern Mockingbird for comparison. There were several Cuban Vireos present and the occasional Prairie Warbler. Further along we had incredible close views of an adult Black Hawk sat just twenty feet away. In the scrub near the end we found a few species of wood warbler before starting the return journey to our hotel. The first roadside stop produced a Greater Yellowlegs and then we found lots of Black-winged Stilts, and Blue-winged Teal plus Tri-coloured Herons and an immature White Ibis. By the bridge we found four Killdeer beside a group of roosting Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns. Continuing back we made a stop on the main causeway when a group of waders were spotted. We had a great time sorting through several hundred birds, and in so doing we found six Stilt Sandpipers, lots of Short-billed Dowitcher, Sanderling, Least sandpipers, Grey Plovers, Turnstone, and many smaller birds of which we managed to show the difference between some very obvious Semi-palmated and Western Sandpipers. We then picked out a single Long-billed Dowitcher and a group of thirty plus Knot. Both these species being rare for the island. A huge Caspian Tern roosted on a mud spit and Semi-palmated Plovers were numerous. As the light faded we reluctantly boarded the coach and continued back to our hotel.  

Day 7   8th March

After breakfast we loaded the coach and set off to our next destination of Camaguey. We arrived in time for our lunch. After, we drove to La Belen reserve. A stop along the way gave us the chance to search some grassy fields and here we got superb views of Eastern Meadowlark plus several distant hirundines including Tree Swallows, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

We then carried on until we reached Pedro's house our guide for the area. Outside his house we soon found some very vocal Cuban Crows and a distant but reasonable view of Plain Pigeon. Pedro then took us to a nearby area of scrub and scattered trees. Walking through here our first birds of note were two Cuban Parrots which gave excellent views perched in a dead tree. We got much closer looks at Plain Pigeon and then a small group of Cuban Parakeets flew noisily overhead. Several Greater Lizard Cuckoo's were encountered and a group of warblers included Prairie, Parula, Black-and-white, American Redstart and later a Black-throated Blue and Yellow-throatedWarblers. As we were about to leave a Cuban Palm Crow was heard and Pedro called the birds in with a perfect imitation. We got good views of these birds before they flew into the palm plantation. As we were leaving a couple of Cuban Parakeets flew in and landed on a nearby tree. A fitting end to the day we enjoyed excellent views of this sometimes difficult endemic. 

Day 8   9th March

Today we had a very early start and took a packed breakfast with us. Outside Pedro's house we ate our breakfast and then took a short walk across the nearby fields. Before long we were watching a pair of the endangered Giant Kingbirds. They performed wonderfully and as added bonuses were Limpkin flying across in front of us and Cuban Martin. Leaving here drove to a nearby lake. We walked the track until we overlooked this reed fringed attractive lake. There were a few warblers flitting around the scrub and amongst the Lilly pads we could see Northern Jacana's and Purple Gallinules. Several more Cuban Martins were spotted before we returned to the awaiting coach!!! A Peregrine Falcon was spotted before travelling to another lake which involved a bit of a walk because the coach could not get past some deep ruts formed in the wet season. We walked out to the lake where the farmer had seen West Indian Whistling Ducks earlier in the morning. We scanned the areas we could see and found three Ospreys a Snail Kite, LesserScaup, Ruddy Duck and Blue-winged Teal. More Jacanas were seen, Green Heron and PurpleGallinule and Cuban Martins perched on a dead tree looked magnificent with the sunlight on them. There were no whistling ducks to be found and the fishermen now present may have sent them to their daytime roosts early. Most of us decided to try and check an area of the lake hidden from view, so we set off around the marshy edges to an area of woodland and beyond. An immature Black-crowned Night Heron flew out of a tree and away, shortly followed by two Limpkins, one with a snail in it's bill.

Further around we could check the lake and here were several Neotropic Cormorants and closer views of the ducks including a Ring-billed Duck. A group of warblers included our first Yellow-rumped Warbler. After checking the lake we returned back with brief stops to look at a perched Merlin and Black-crowned Night-heron. After this we returned to the coach where a refreshing grapefruit and cool bottled water was very welcome. Returning back to Camaguey we then had ourselves an easy afternoon, and then an evening out enjoying some cultural music and dancing.

Day 9   10th March

Today was to be another day of travelling. We set off after breakfast and drove to our lunch stop. We then drove a short distance to a small area of roadside pools. Here we soon found several Northern Jacana's and Purple Gallinule's. There were close views of Cuban Crow, Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers and lots of Tawny-shouldered Blackbirds as well as Common Yellowthroat and a couple of American Redstarts. We then had fantastic views of a pair of Cuban Parrots sat in full view in glorious sunshine. Leaving here we drove the short distance to our hotel at Playa Larga where we soon settled in. After our evening meal we had a very quick search in the garden and after spotlighting just three trees we found a superb Stygian Owl sat right on the top twigs of a fairly small tree. Excellent views of our first owl of the trip!

Day 10   11th March

We took an early breakfast at the hotel and headed just forty-five minutes to an area of scattered scrub and woodland. We parked beside a track and before starting to walk a flock of fifty plus Cuban Parakeets flew into some distant trees. We then made our way along the track into the forest. A Cuban Trogan was spotted as well as Cuban Tody and then on a short chopped off tree a pair of Fernandina's Flickers gave us the most wonderful of views as they had a competition excavating nest holes one above the other. We went further into the forest and a distant Grey-headed Quail-dove was heard. As we waited beside a clearing a high pitched buzzing soon drew our attention to a stunning male Bee Hummingbird sat just twenty yards away singing its heart out.

Bee Hummingbird

We waited and watched as the smallest bird in the world did several circuits and returned to this same prominent twig and repeated the wonderful views. Returning through the forest and saw a couple more Cuban Tody's really well and then a Cuban Pygmy-owl sat up in full view with the sunshine on it! After a morning of fabulous looks at very good birds we returned to the hotel for lunch and an afternoon of relaxation while the sun was too hot for birding. Late afternoon we met up and drove to the area of La Turba. After parking at the end of a long track we walked slowly to the edge of the reed bed. In the bushes we saw a pair of Zapata Sparrows, a Prairie Warbler and several Common Yellowthroats. Out on the marsh there were lots of Tri-coloured Herons, a Northern Harrier and with patience Red-shouldered Blackbirds coming in to roost. We walked slowly back seeing the Zapata Sparrows again and then along side a canal we found many Green Herons. The coach then picked us up and we returned to the hotel.    

Day 11   12th March

Today we got up really early and took a picnic breakfast with us. We drove to another entrance track to the marsh and after eating our breakfast we got out of the coach ready to start our walk. Several of the group managed to see two Cuban Nightjars quickly fly past, before we set off. A few commoner birds were spotted along the way including plenty of Yellow-headed Warblers. Nearing the end of the track our target species, a Zapata Wren was heard singing beside the track we walked back and almost everyone got extremely close views of this endangered endemic. A little further on we watched a good scattering of herons and waterbirds and then a Spotted Rail was found and with a lot of patience and quietness everyone got to see yet another difficult bird. Having seen it several of the group realise that a plain looking rail seen just before the Spotted may well have been the mythical Zapata Rail! At least two of these birds were easily heard calling from the same area which was only 30 feet in front of us. We made our way back as the sun was now getting more intense. Half way back to the coach we saw a Louisiana Waterthrush and then Tim spotted a Gundlach's Hawk flying over and everyone got to see yet another endemic.

We eventually got back to the coach and returned to the hotel for lunch. After a relaxed afternoon in the heat of the sun we then met up and visited a different area of wood not too far from our hotel.  We strolled silently through the forest stopping and scanning the track ahead and behind on many occasions. The area was a bit busy with local fishermen and hunters and our best finds apart from the more familiar, were a couple of stunning male Hooded Warblers and a few Ovenbirds. We returned to the hotel as the sun started to go down.

Day 12   13th March

This morning we had breakfast in the hotel and then headed to yet another area of prime quail-dove woodland. The track in this forest was narrower and more overgrown than the others we had tried. The group behaved impeccably and we were well rewarded when a Blue-headed Quail-dove was seen briefly to fly up from the path and then heard calling within the forest. Once the bird was carefully located we set up my telescope on the only available gap through the undergrowth and there eight feet up everyone in the group enjoyed scope views of this highly prized endemic. After our second round of views the bird flew off, leaving us feeling very happy that everyone had seen it well! While watching this bird a Ruddy Quail-dove flew right across in front of us and a little more searching got us good views of many species that we had now seen time and time again. The sun was now very warm and we decided to leave and call in on a local bar where we could get a cool drink and watch some beautiful tropical fish in a salt water pool which was connected deep down to he sea. There were also several very interesting lizards here. A quick look at another area and we soon realised it was now too hot, so we returned to the hotel for lunch and the afternoon relaxation. Early evening we set off again in the coach to a nearby open area of scrub. A look on the canal here found us a few commoner heron species as well as Blue-winged Teal, Killdeer and a few hirundines of which Tree Swallow was by far he commonest. As dusk fell we tried o find Cuban Nightjar but only a glimpse was had. Compensation was had by a Barn Owl flying low overhead.        

Day 13   14th March

We had breakfast in the hotel and then tried a track of wood to look for Quail-doves. As we quietly stood and scanned two directions we saw many of the more familiar woodland species and then a single Ruddy Quail-dove flew right in front of our faces. Leaving here we then drove towards les salines. A stop along the way had us follow Angel our guide into the wood and up to a tree where he then scratched the bark. We were then treated to excellent views a Cuban Screech-owl looking at us from the top of a broken off tree. We left and continued on down to the salines, several roadside stop got us off the coach where we enjoyed looking at species such as (carribean) Greater Flamingo which were the richest pink you could imagine. Amongst the terns we saw Caspian's, Sandwich and six Gull-billed, but pride of place went to the twenty seven Black Skimmers which were roosting on a mud spit. One of the skimmers then performed its wonderful feeding teqnique in front of us, before we were distracted by a Gundlach's Hawk and a Northern Harrier. There were lots of Black Hawks flying around and we also found a flock of Blue-winged Teal and a couple of American Wigeon. Waders were thin on the ground but we had excellent comparisons of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs stood beside each other. Cave Swallows flew low overhead and along with most of the heron species we also saw plenty of Woodstorks. It became really hot so we returned to the hotel for our regular session of lunch and relaxation. Later in the afternoon we made a visit to a very nearby sight where we had the most unbelievable views of a male Bee Hummingbird sat low and close on a small bush allowing the best views imaginable. After enjoying this little gem we went back to the hotel. 

Day 14   15th March

After an early breakfast we headed to one of our nearby woodland sites. We took a fairly brisk walk to a habitat which was good for Quail-doves. After some excellent fieldcraft from all the group members who were as quiet as mice. We eventually heard Grey-headed Quail-dove. Some diligent searching by the guides found several birds but trying to get everyone near in the noisy leaf litter proved almost impossible and several of the group only managed flight views. We tried many trails. At one particular spot with a small reed fringed pool we spotted two Solitary Sandpipers, a Greater Yellowlegs and a couple of Fernandina's Flickers. Returning through the woodland we saw the usual array of species before reaching the coach as the sun blazed down. Returning to the hotel a decision was made to visit the lovely tract of woodland where we saw the Blue-headed Quail-dove. A walk of several hundred yards found us a few Zenaida Doves and Common Ground-dove. We then waited a while checking both directions. With nothing much else  seen we slowly returned, and then amazingly just twenty feet in front of us was a superb Key West Quail-dove. The bird froze for a while thinking it could not be seen and we all enjoyed fantastic views before it scuttled off into the thick undergrowth. Another good bird under our belts we returned to the hotel for lunch and a relaxed afternoon with several people enjoying a swim in the gloriously warm sea.In the afternoon just a few of the group revisited Per Alta. After our arrival at the start of the long track that leads into the marsh we quietly made our way through the first section of woodland. A Grey-headed Quail-dove then flew from the side of the track just two feet into the forest where several of the group saw it just before it flew again. While looking for this bird a Ruddy Quail-dove flew up onto a branch and also showed briefly. With several other Quail-doves heard flying off this was obviously a prime area. Continuing on we eventually got near the pool at the end of the track and here we could hear both Spotted and King Rail. A Zapata Wren then gave good but brief views, while at the pool itself we manage to see a Least Bittern. With the light fading fast we made our way back towards the coach. With just a hundred yards to go we heard and then had very good views of a pair of Cuban Nightjars both perched close and flying over our heads. An excellent last afternoon saw us toast George who had had what can only be described as a "smashing time".

An excellent tour in which all the Cuban specialities that were possible, were seen!

Of great interest was a conversation with Arturo Kirkconnell on our last day. Apparently the call of Zapata Rail which we heard at Per Alta, and is recorded as Zapata Rail on all the tapes and recordings available, is in fact another call of the Spotted Rail. This would explain the close proximity of calling Spotted Rails to the apparent calling Zapata Rails. I have left our paragraph in the report where we heard the call! Interestingly several companies run their tours to specifically target this almost impossible species, they will now need to redress claims of tape luring the Zapata Rail in, and getting glimpses of the bird?!!!                                    



birdseekers photos