Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Cuba. 13th-24th November 2013 ,
My wife and I arranged this trip through Voyager Holidays, a UK company specialising in holidays to Cuba and Mexico (see their website www.voyagercuba.co.uk ) I would have no hesitation in recommending them to anyone wishing to travel to Cuba. All our travel arrangements went smoothly, accommodation was first class, and we thought the trip was good value for money. Particularly pleasing was the free flight from local UK airports to Heathrow or Paris for the connecting flight across the Atlantic.
One of the best features of Voyager is that they offer several destinations in Cuba, so you can choose from the various combinations offered. Our choice was as follows:
Havana - 3 nights. Las Terrazas. -3 nights. Jibacoa – 5 nights. All transfers between the resorts were arranged as part of the holiday (except on arrival at Havana airport.). Details of our destinations as follows:
Havana. Of course, the capital of Cuba and not to be missed. The place is falling to bits but is absolutely fascinating. Only downside is the constant hassle from people who, although very friendly, are hoping to get money for some service or other, or are just simply begging. This can be a bit wearing at times, but it's best just to smile politely, or, of course, say 'no hablo espaňol' (whether that be true or not!) But at the same time, it has to be remembered that this is a poor country. People don't have much, so I suppose it's just a way of life to them. And, to be fair, it was always done in a friendly way – we never felt threatened or intimidated.
Otherwise, you can wander around the streets in perfect safety during the daytime, but it's best to be more cautious after dark. (The local company rep. gave us a few tips about where to go then.)
Las Terrazas. This is a hillside eco-village to the west of Havana whose origins go back to 1968. It is also a superb place for birding and at the only hotel (La Moka) is is possible to hire a birdwatching guide (which we did). You can also obtain a map of the surrounding area from the hotel reception desk.
On our second day there we walked the 3 kilometres to the Baňos del San Juan, natural swimming pools in one of the local rivers, and saw lots of wildlife on the way. We both loved Las Terrazas, and wished we could have stayed longer. It was the highlight of the trip.
Jibacoa. This is a beach resort east of Havana. Accommodation is at the Hotel Breezes. You live in luxury here! Unlike the Hotels in Havana and Las Terrazas, which were on a bed and breakfast basis, this one was all inclusive. And that means 3 meals a day, plus drinks at any time. Only downside was that we felt a little bit like as if we were in a bubble – it didn't really feel like Cuba at all; it could have been in any country specialising in beach holidays. But you could 'escape' into the surrounding countryside, where quite a bit of wildlife could be found. And of course there was nothing to complain about as regards accommodation etc.
Cuba in General: Lonely Planet guide to Cuba will tell you all you need to know. Includes a street map of Havana.
Jibacoa: see http://maybank.tripod.com/Caribbean/Cuba-Index.htm and www.natureimages.net/cuba-jibacoa/rapport.html There you will find trip reports from visiting birders and maps, information on sites and species lists.
Cuban Nature in General: Cuba Natural by A.S.Lee (Pangaea Books, 1996) gives a good overall view of the natural history of the island. In English and Spanish.
Birds: Birds of Cuba (Garrido, Kirkconnell, Helm Field Guides, reprinted 2008) is all you will need.
Mammals: There is no field guide and indeed Cuba has very few mammals; most of what there is consists of bats.
Butterflies: I managed to get (from America) a copy of a Field Guide to the Butterflies of the West Indies (Riley) 1975, Demeter Press which, although dated, was of great use. Also well worth a look is the Butterflies of North America website, which has photos and drawings of most Cuban species.
There is also the Field Guide of Cuban-West Indies Butterflies (Hernandez, 2004) but this, like Riley, is now out of print. I found it more difficult to trace a copy of this one, and the few I did find seemed very expensive.
Reptiles: At present, no field guide is available, although one should be out in 2014. Meantime, the best bet is to look at www.caribherp.org which is in effect an on line field guide with complete lists and distribution maps. However, it has deliberately poor quality pictures (to stop copying). Also worth a look is www.saumfinger.de , a German site specialising in Anole lizards.
Dragonflies: There is no up to date field guide, but a list of West Indian odonata, showing which ones are found in Cuba, can be found at www.pugetsound.edu (the website of the University of Puget sound.
General browsing of the net will reveal other websites of interest.
NOTE: In the notes that follow, entries in bold refer to the first sightings of the species involved during the trip.
We had arrived in Havana the previous evening at about 6.00pm so, as it gets dark in Cuba about that time, we saw no wildlife on our way to the hotel from the airport. However, on looking out of our room window in the excellent Hotel Telegrafo the next morning, the first birds we saw were Collared Doves in the little park across the road. Next, the first new bird of the trip when a Turkey Vulture soared past the window. These birds are abundant everywhere, from city centres to the remotest countryside – I defy anyone to go to Cuba and not see one!
After breakfast, we set out to explore the city on foot. Firstly, we made for the Malecon, an 8 kilometre road which runs along the sea wall. Here we had little trouble in locating Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern and Laughing Gull. As we continued walking, we noted that House Sparrows were common in the streets.
Stopping at a parkside cafe for an ice cream, we found our first Palm Warbler rooting about under some shrubbery. This was to become one of the most familiar birds of the trip.
Later in the afternoon we went to visit the Museum of the Revolution (which was very interesting and informative.) In the square outside we found our first Northern Mockingbirds and Greater Antillean Grackles. Both of these species, too, proved to be common everywhere and, as dusk approached, large numbers of Grackles flew in to roost in the trees quite close to our hotel.
At 9.00am, we were off on an organised city tour, and were shown all the best sites; old town, Revolution Square etc. Part of the tour included a trip under the estuary to visit the Fortaleza (fort) on the opposite side, from where good views of the city could be had. Here we saw Cuban Blackbird and Antillean Palm Swift as well as 2 or 3 butterflies which we could not identify as they refused to settle.
Back in the old town, in the very heart of the city, we found a Cuban Emerald (Hummingbird) in one of the leafy squares, as well as a few Feral Pigeon.
Again at 09.00 we set of by taxi for Las Terrazas, a journey which lasted about an hour. On the way we passed through the western part of Havana, which looked very nice, and then out on to the Autopista (motorway) for the rest of the trip. We saw little wildlife on the way apart from in a couple of lakes which held numerous waterbirds (probably ducks) but they were too distant to identify. The only other birds we saw, apart from the inevitable Turkey Vultures, were some Cattle Egrets around the feet of the local cattle.
We were delighted with the accommodation at the Hotel Moka in Las Terrazas (and the restaurant). From the balcony of our room, shortly after arrival, we saw our only Cuban Green Woodpecker, plus a West Indian Woodpecker, a much more common species which we saw frequently thereafter, both there and at Jibacoa.
After freshening up a bit, we went out to explore the eco-village and the lake. Down by the lake we saw no birds but did see two butterflies – White Peacock and The Malachite. By now the heat was becoming oppressive, so we adjourned to the hotel swimming pool for the afternoon. Near the pool we found Cuban White-fanned Anole (the most common lizard of the trip). A late evening stroll on one of the tracks near the hotel was rewarded with Loggerhead Kingbird and Red-legged Thrush.
Today we had booked our walk with the local bird guide, who turned out to be excellent and also spoke quite good English. The walk lasted about two and a half hours, at a gentle pace, and probably didn't stray very far from the hotel, although it was difficult to tell owing to the thick jungle. This walk produced, for us, Cuban Trogon, American Redstart, Yellow-throated Warbler, Cuban Grassquit, The Zebra (butterfly), Cuban Pewee, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-headed Warbler, Great Blue Heron and Cuban Slider (Terrapin). In addition, the guide saw/heard Stripe-headed Tanager, Cuban Bullfinch, Black-throated Blue Warbler, CubanVireo, Red-legged Honeycreeper and White-crowned Pigeon.
An evening walk in the surroundings added Western Giant Anole, (Lizard), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, American Coot and Summer Tanager (apparently something of a rarity in Cuba) to a very successful day's birding, and, to finish the day off, we found several Tropical House Geckos on the wall outside our apartment after dark.
Today we walked the three kilometres from the Hotel Moka to the swimming pools on the river at the Baňos del San Juan, and this was possibly the most enjoyable expedition of the trip (We usually find that things we discover for ourselves are the best!) On the way we added Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Common Daggertail and Cuban Admiral (Butterflies), Great Lizard Cuckoo and Smooth-billed Ani. At the pools themselves we saw Louisiana Waterthrush and Greater Antillean Grackle joining the bathers, while a little further upstream, just above the footbridge over the river, we found a very confiding Little Blue Heron. Also here were several freshwater fish, none of which we have been able to identify (so far at least). Dragonflies were plentiful; we saw Scarlet Skimmer, Roseate Skimmer, Great Pondhawk, Red Setwing and Antillean Sylph. In the nearby wood we found Tropical Chequered Skipper and Caribbean Skipper (Butterflies).
The walk back to Las Terrazas added Eastern Meadowlark, and in the village we found an American Kestrel perched on a tree top beside the excellent Cafe Maria. (Just try her coffees!)
With great sadness, we left Las Terrazas today for Jibacoa. The beautiful modern hotel there was all you could wish for, but the manicured gardens did not look too promising for wildlife. Indeed, this was the only day of the trip when we recorded no new species, apart from a cracking Owl Moth (it's huge) on the apartment wall at night. (Incidentally, this was identified for us by the Butterflies of America website people – We sent them a photo.)
However, we were lucky in that we had been allocated an apartment beside the alley which divides the Breezes Hotel from the hotel next door, and just behind the row of trees outside was the pond referred to in the websites (see resources section, to which the reader might like to refer to at this stage in order to get his bearings.) This was to turn out to be useful...........
We quickly found out that the hotel grounds were not so bad after all. On the beach we found abundant Saw-scaled Curlytails (Lizards) and a Cuban Green Anole joined us by the swimming pool. Later in the afternoon we had two Common Ground Dove in the hotel grounds. A walk around the grounds of the neighbouring hotel and the pond quickly established that the latter hotel was much better for wildlife, as a more natural environment had been retained/created. In this hotel Mourning Dove was added to the trip list.
We also took a trip up the mountain trail, but saw nothing apart from Yellow-headed Warbler. Incidentally, care is needed here due to the steep slope. The trail should not be attempted if wet or greasy.
We walked for a considerable distance along the road to the campesmos east of the hotel. No new birds, but very good for butterflies with Polydamas Swallowtail, Common Ringlet, Cayman Crescent Spot, Caribbean Buckeye and The Flambeau added to the trip list – also one or two others we couldn't identify. Also there was a Halloween Pennant dragonfly.
Back at the hotel, another check of the pond paid off when we managed to flush a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
Another walk along the same road as yesterday added more butterflies – Common Long-tailed Skipper and Cassius Blue. Relaxing on the beach in our loungers at the hotel in the afternoon, we were delighted to see 9 Brown Pelican flying by. I was getting worried by then that we wouldn't see this species, as I had formed the impression that they were more common, so this was something of a relief.
Somewhat less romantic was a visit to the waste treatment plant later in the afternoon. I found it exactly as described on the website – a trail littered with rubbish. But it was well worth a visit when a Cuban Tody – one of the most sought after birds of the trip – put in an appearance.
Another sigh of relief this morning when a beautiful male Stripe-headed Tanager was found first thing in the morning perched in a tree just outside our apartment. (We had missed this species on the walk at Las Terrazas.) We also saw Cuban Emerald, Red-legged Thrush, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Mockingbird, Yellow-throated Warbler, American Redstart, Little Blue Heron and Palm Warbler in this area. A return visit to the waste treatment plant after breakfast enabled Northern Parula to be added to the trip list, and also a Seaside Dragonlet dragonfly. Other birds seen around here included Great Lizard Cuckoo, American Kestrel, Smooth-billed Ani, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Cuban Pewee, Palm Warbler and Common Ground Dove. Later, at the beach, we found a female Yellow Warbler in the trees.
A walk along the beach path at the eastern end of the hotel added the only wader of the trip – 4 Killdeer on a small piece of sandy beach. In the evening, several very large bats were seen flying around the apartment, but we had no way of identifying them.
Our last day in Cuba. A farewell visit to the hotel pond was rewarded with a Green Heron, and likewise a last visit to the waste treatment plant yielded Florida White and Lucas's Blue butterflies.
Trip Totals: Birds 49, Butterflies 16, Dragonflies 7, Reptiles 6, Moths 1 (plus unidentifed Fish).
Happy to answer any questions. Just e mail email@example.com.
Allan and Charlotte Finlayson.