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A Report from

Cuba, 13th - 23rd March 2011 ,

Bob Biggs

This trip was undertaken by a gang of four from Northumberland – Tom Cadwallender, Steve Taylor, Richard Dunn and myself. I got the urge to go to Cuba after I went to a talk by Andy Mitchell at the Birdwatching Fair in 2009. It didn’t take long to find three others who wanted to go too. I contacted Andy [andy@], who made most of the arrangements on our behalf. He made the majority of the bookings through Havantour, a travel agency based in Hertfordshire.

I booked the flights separately via Opodo. We flew Newcastle to London Gatwick with Flybe and then onto Havana with Virgin Atlantic. That cost around £610 each in total. We paid about the same amount to Havanatour, which covered everything other than our three nights in a Casa Particulare in Playa Largo, guiding fees and the car insurance. We estimate that we spent about £1450 each altogether, including drinks, petrol, and other general bits and bobs. It is, perhaps, worth pointing out that the car hire cost £594 and that there was a further £250 to pay on arrival for insurance.

We found some of the birding to be hard work. We missed a few of the endemics but that is to be expected. There was little migration. I thought there would have been more. I presume we were too early. Cuba was something of an “eye opener”, with living conditions much worse than I had expected in some parts of the country. The people seem to make the most of a fairly poor existance. Other than in Havana, we received very little hassle.

13 March

I left Morpeth at 6.45am and we arrived many hours later in Havana at 5.10pm [their time, which was 5 hours behind ours]. The idea was that we would get out of the airport quickly while there was still daylight. We knew we would only have about 2 hours before dark but we thought we could get most of the way to La Guira before that if we had a “flyer” .

So, having got through passport control reasonably well, we waited for our cases. And waited, and waited. Steve got his so that gave the rest of us some hope. But, many cases later, there was still no sign so he left us to start the car hire proceedings. Virgin use a Jumbo for the flight from Gatwick and there were about 450 people on it. 447 of the cases came off and then our three were last! Quick pick up and away…er, no, actually we got about 30 yards and were then shepherded into Customs. We saw that our labels had all been marked with a red cross. Clearly, someone didn’t like them. It didn’t take long to work out that as we all had tripods and Steve didn’t, the common denominator was the three legged beast!

So, let the fun begin. I had no particular problem with them having a look to make sure that we weren’t up to anything odd [except birding , of course..]. However, as the first hour dragged by, incorporating a detailed interview as to who we were, where we worked [I’ve just retired but that made no difference, I just had to go into where I used to work…], why we had binoculars, telescopes, a bird checklist [ they really didn’t like that and took a number of copies], blah , blah , blah. Hour number 2 came and went. We wondered whether we were going to be let in by now. A super moment then followed when one of the chaps who had interviewed us came out and said that another of his mates would now interview Tom, the culprit editor of the checklist. It started really well when the chap explained as well as he could that he didn’t speak English. Joyously, Tom explained that he didn’t speak Spanish and pointed out that the interview may well be very difficult. This seemed to be a defining moment and we were given the green light to proceed, leaving at 8.20 – but not before a woman stopped Tom at the exit and tried to send him back to the Customs desk because he still had a red cross on his case….it was all very silly, unnecessary and a complete waste of life.

Laugh…we nearly started! Steve looked chilled. He had water for us and we were very happy about that. I picked up the voucher for our return coach on the last day, pointing out that it was for 2 rather than 4 people. The Havanatur rep said it didn’t matter, there would be plenty of space for 4 on the bus.  

We finished the car paperwork for our Passat and left the airport at about 9pm. Hats off to Steve and Richard for getting us to the Hotel Mirador in San Diego de Los Banos pretty quickly and we just had enough time to have a beer or three and a late night snack. We made a toast to the staff at Customs for their very hospitable welcome!

14 March

We were up as dawn broke [about 6am] and out at the front of the Hotel, eagerly searching for our first birds. This was Richard’s first trip across the pond so nearly everything was new for him. A couple of Turkey Vultures started his list.  For the rest of us, Cuban Emerald soon became the first lifer. We then saw a few Warblers and we started to get into the swing. There was no doubt about the bird of the morning - for some, the bird of the trip. Our first Red-Legged Thrush stole the show by a distance. There was an impressive supporting list though and we knocked up a fair number of birds before going back for breakfast.

We then got ready to go to La Guira, where we hoped to see Olive Capped Warbler and Cuban Solitaire. As we were about to get into the car, we stopped to speak to Caesar, a local guide who was with the Rockjumper tour. He offered to guide us in the afternoon if we hadn’t caught up with everything ourselves. We thought that would be very unlikely so arranged to meet him at 3pm.

Andy Mitchell had given us excellent instructions on how to find hotels and birding sites. We set off to a site for Cuban Grassquit, which was only half a mile away. We couldn’t quite sort it out so we decided to leave it for later. We then made our way to the Hacienda Cortina entrance to La Guira. It’s fair to say that once through the archway, this becomes a very difficult journey. It’s almost impassable in places. Some of the holes in the “road” are very deep and on occasions, we had to set up a Committee to decide on options as to the best way ahead! Finally, we arrived at the place highlighted by Andy and sure enough, we were quickly on to the first of several Olive Capped Warblers. We walked up the hill and could hear the occasional burst of a Cuban Solitaire. Seeing it/them was another matter altogether. We spent a good deal of time trying to find a vantage point. Thankfully, Steve wandered off and hit the jackpot, finding three birds. We caught up and enjoyed scope views of one of the birds, which then flew much closer to us. A few other good birds, including our first Western Spindalis, kept us on our toes. And then, the return trip, which was just as bad as on the way up!

After a brief rest, we met Caesar and we returned to the Grassquit area. We had been pretty close earlier but Caesar was able to take us to the right place and both species of Grassquit showed very well, as did a Cuban Vireo. We then returned to the Hacienda Cortina but didn’t go back up the hill. Instead, we parked near the entrance and walked around, adding Cuban Tody, Louisiana Waterthrush, Least Grebe and Red-Legged Honeycreeper to our list.

We asked if we could go to the Paso Fish Farm and Caesar said that would not be  a problem. We stopped en route for great views of Meadowlark, which provided Steve and Richard with fantastic photographic opportunities as two birds came very close to them. To maximise the shots, they both lay down at the side of the road. They added a number of ticks as a result, regrettably the kind that you have to pull out of your skin a few days later…..

So, off to the Fish Farm. At least half a dozen Snail Kites, several Spotted Sandpipers, a group of Munias, lots of  Stilts, a few Terns… and 4 friendly Government/Police types in a Lada who went out of their way to tell Caesar that we were not allowed to watch birds there without permission. We wondered whether they were members of the Fisheries Division of Customs. Anyway, Caesar got a good telling off, and we were made to pack up and clear out of the area before we did something out of hand. It seems to me that birdwatching should not be regarded as a threat to the wider society but that’s only my view and I wouldn’t wish to undermine the views of others who see things differently.

This incident took the wind out of our sails. It was clear that Caesar had run into trouble and we were sorry about that. The short return trip to the hotel was quiet. They had done their job I suppose - spoilt the afternoon.

We had  quite a few cans of beer to end the day, toasting our friends in the Lada in our usual way.

15 March

Another early start but we had seen everything we had hoped to see so after a quick walk around the area and breakfast, we set off for the long drive to La Belen. This would take us the best part of 10 hours. We stopped in a couple of places, the first being just outside Havana at a resevoir where we saw a large number of Ruddy Duck, and a few other Ducks and waterbirds. However, it was mainly a day for driving and we were exhausted by the time we arrived at La Belen. The last 25 km is tough going, with many holes in the “road” so be careful.

We seemed to catch them by surprise at La Belen. We couldn’t decide whether they knew we were coming. Anyway, after a scramble around, they found something for us to eat and we had several cans of beer to help us sleep.

16 March

We awoke to the sound of Cuban Crows – what a strange sound but a lifer all the same. We walked around the grounds and added a few new birds to our list, including both Orioles and a number of Warblers. After a quick breakfast, we met Camillo, our guide for the day, and we then set off in the car to an area which was well known for a speciality or two. We found several Plain Pigeons and also soon had great views of Great Kingbird. We also saw Cuban Parakeets and Cuban Parrots in this area, with occasional Warblers thrown in for good measure. After a fairly long walk in ever-increasing heat, we finally came across a couple of Cuban Palm Crows. We were out for about three hours and then went back to our rooms for a  break. We met Graham, a fellow birder from the UK, and exchanged info. He had seen Fernandina’s Flicker a few minutes earlier so we went with him to the site - but no luck. A few hours’ break was welcome. Unfortunately, there was no water in the rooms so some of the chaps took a dip in the pool. I resisted the temptation.

At 3.30pm, we met Camillo again and we went to different sites within La Belen. We saw our only Solitary Sandpiper for the trip and a couple of Jacanas. We then retraced our steps to the site we visited earlier and had good views of White-Crowned Pigeon. Camillo had hoped we would find a Fernandina’s Flicker but we had to make do with a Northern.

The end of a hard day was celebrated by the consumption of a few cans of beer. Happily, we were able to see things through more positive eyes, although a shower would have been nice.

17 March

A quick walk around the grounds brought more of the same so we set off after breakfast for Cayo Coco. We stopped a couple of times at wetland areas, picking up the occasional Jacana, Egret etc but mainly it was just a question of pointing the car towards our destination. After about 4 hours, we arrived at the checkpoint of Jardines del Rey and once our passports had been given the all clear and we’d paid our 2 CUC entrance fee, we made our way across the causeway. Richard asked me to stop the car so he could savour his first Magnificant Frigatebird. I duly obliged. We saw a few Terns, Gulls and waders as we made our way across. A Clapper Rail then walked out in front of the car. We quickly made our way to the the Cayo Coco Sol, checked in, had a late lunch and enjoyed a shower before heading out to Cayo Guillermo at 4pm.

We stopped just short of the bridge at Cayo Guillermo to check out several waders on the sand. The tide was rising but we saw several new birds for the trip. Further on, there were a couple of pools which were full of Ducks, Waders and Flamingoes, with a few other good birds above us, including Cuban Black Hawk and Caracara. Our main target was Bahama Mockingbird and we parked in the area identified by Andy in his notes. After a dozen false alarms - Northern Mockingbirds every time - Richard found one. At the same time, 100 metres away, Steve and Tom found two, one of which showed briliantly for ten minutes.”It’s too close” came Richard’s cry as he tried to focus his rather large camera on it - nice problem…As we watched it, Tom got brief views of Cuban Gnatcatcher. It dived into bushes but was persuaded to return and we all saw it well.

We made our way back to the hotel, having had a good day. The Cayo Coco Sol was all inclusive so we thought we would help them to reduce their stock of beer. This we did with great aplomb. That said, we were always in control. That is more than could be said of a number of people. Perhaps it is indicative of the behaviour of tourists that the Hotel serves alcohol in plastic glasses after 8pm.

18 March

Up nice and early for a trip to the Lighthouse. Unfortunately, it was very windy and we knew that was unlikely to help our cause. Steve drove and we made good progress, successfully crossing the “land strip” that has replaced the bridge while repair work continues. Once parked, it took no time for Oriente Warblers to appear. What Beauties! Possibly my favourite bird of the trip. There were also a few Cuban Bullfinch in this area. We then walked along the track which had been highlighted as the place for Thick Billed Vireo.  These were less accommodating but after about half an hour, we heard one calling. It then flew to the top of  a bush and gave excellent views. We saw another two before making our way back to the lighthouse along the beach. The tide was fully in so there was little sand in places. At the end of the beach, a few Least Sandpipers and a Spotted Sandpiper gave us something to look at, as did a close Brown Pelican and a Cuban Black Hawk.

We made our way back to the bridge and stopped to scope 200 or more Double Crested Cormorants, Frigatebirds, Herons, Terns and a couple of Lesser Black Backed Gulls! We then heard a whistle from Steve who had stayed close to the car to try to photograph a Yellowthroat. In his quest, his attention had been caught by what he thought was a tennis ball stuck in a low tree. It turned out to be a male Painted Bunting, which was sat motionless. It was almost asleep so we presumed it had come some distance. We managed to get a scope onto it and saw it very well through the branches. Not very good for photographs though.

We had lunch and then went to a few sites close to the hotel without any success. We were hoping to fluke a West Indian Whistling Duck at one of the pools but had no success. There was little to be seen apart from Least Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs and the occasional Waterthrush. As we made our way back to the car, Steve came across a party of Cuban Gnatcatchers. There must have been at least 10 and they showed very well. We decided to end the afternoon at the Wild Boar Cave car park. We saw a few birds and our first Ovenbird of the trip, which made Richard’s day.

19 March

We decided to retrace our steps from the previous afternoon in the hope that we might either see Zapata Sparrow or something new on the pools – like a West Indian Whistling Duck. A quick trip to the pools produced nothing new so we made our way to the Cave car park. It was lively and we saw more birds, including great views of Cape May and Oriente Warblers. New birds included Yellow Throated Vireo and Worm Eating Warbler. Then Tom beckoned us across to see a bird walking along the path - Key West Quail- Dove! A lifer for all and it showed well. A chap came out from buildings to show Richard a couple of water troughs he had made. They both attracted birds and there were many Grey Catbirds, Warblers, La Sagre Flycatchers and others in the area. He also had a pair of Cuban Green Woodpeckers nesting in a tree next to his front door. He was a good bloke and looked after his patch very well. Then a White Eyed Vireo popped out to say hello. We didn’t get our Sparrow but it was an excellent morning. We had to move on so we made our way back to the hotel for a late breakfast, checked out and were soon on our way to Zapata.

As we went back across the causeway, we stopped to scan for anything that might be different. There were several Mergansers and the only Roseate Spoonbill we saw on the trip  so it was worth the stop. Then off we went for several hours before turning off the main road and heading for Playa Largo. We stopped at La Boca, where there were a few decent birds. Our first Rough Winged Swallows flew over us and there were a few Waterbirds on the pools.

We carried on for a few miles until we entered Playa Largo. We didn’t have exact details of where we were staying but we found someone who jumped into the car with her little daughter [ so just the 6 of us..] and  she pointed out where we should go. We were told by the owner that we were not staying with him but his son-in- law, who lived close by. We wondered whether we were in for a treat… We didn’t need to have worried. The Casa Particulare [Kiki’s] was excellent. Kiki was able to speak very good English and couldn’t do enough for us throughout our stay. His young wife was an excellent chef and we enjoyed the best food of the trip. The fridge was also well stocked up with water, soft drinks, beer and wine. It was very laid back. Kiki has two rooms for rent, one on the ground floor and one upstairs [ quite a twisty staircase] and we have nothing but praise for the whole place.

Andy Mitchell had arranged a guide for us throughout our stay in Zapata and as agreed, Angel appeared to discuss the forthcoming days. We gave him a list of what we most wanted to see. He had high hopes that we would see about 80% of those listed. We arranged to meet him early in the morning to start the project…and had a few beers to celebrate. Graham, who had made his way from La Belen,  arrived later so we were able to exchange info, which was useful.

20 March

Well, we didn’t leave quite as early as hoped as Kiki had forgotten that the clocks had moved on one hour at midnight. Never mind, a hastily prepared breakfast and we were off to Soplillar with Angel. We stopped fairly quickly and reverted to leg power along a track. After only a couple of minutes, Angel heard a Blue Headed Quail-Dove and we left the track to follow the call. It was tough going and we stopped while Angel went ahead to see whether he could find the bird. As he did, we waited quietly and patiently. I looked around to see Richard pointing to the ground close to him. I couldn’t see anything through the thick branches – but we soon gathered that he was looking at a Blue Headed Quail-Dove! None of the rest of us saw it. We nipped back to the track and walked quietly along. I picked up some movement ahead and called the others. My biggest regret of the trip was that I didn’t set up my scope as a Blue Headed Quail-Dove came out on to the track some way ahead. We saw it through binoculars but I could have seen it so much better - we didn’t see another.

We moved on and shortly we came across a Ruddy Quail-Dove on the track. This time, the scope did the trick. We were doing well and shortly, we were looking skywards towards a very small bird at the top of a very large tree - male Bee Hummingbird!

It was getting fairly hot so we had a long break betweeen Noon and 3.30pm. We spent some of that time just outside the Salinas area. Tom had a Yellow Warbler but the rest of us missed it. We didn’t go into the Salinas itself so I don’t know whether there were any waders around. Angel said they were dry so probably not.

We met Angel as arranged and went back to a similar area as earlier. We weren’t so lucky this time and, other than Cuban Nightjar and Cuban Screech-Owl, we had a poor time of it. In particular, we were disappointed to miss Stygian Owl, which had been faithful to a roosting site until we arrived….

We couldn’t improve on our tally so called it a day around 6pm and returned for an excellent meal, a few beers and more info exchange with Graham, who appeared with a bottle of Rum, some of which was consumed by certain members of the team, purely for medicinal purposes…

21 March

A prompt start took us towards the well known sites for Zapata Wren and Sparrow at La Turba. Despite having a tape, there was no response from the Wren although we saw a number of warblers while we were waiting. None was new for the trip though. We decided to move on and try for the Sparrow. However, that wasn’t around either so our poor run was continuing!

On our way back, Angel heard the Wren so we were quickly out of the car, looking hopefully across the river. It came so close….but not close enough.

We then did better with Fernandina’s Flicker, seeing two birds well. A distant Red-Tailed Hawk did its best with a clever Gundlach’s impression but we weren’t fooled [ even though we wanted to be..]. Another Cuban Screech-Owl came and went but overall, there were few birds around and we headed off for lunch.

On Andy Mitchell’s advice, we drove to La Cueva de Los Peces, where he suggested we might find a few Warblers. This is a tourist area, with people coming to swim in the “Fish Cave”. There were lots of impressive-looking fish around and we spent some time looking at them. There were a few Warblers around too. Steve tried to entice a Northern Waterthrush to come closer to a small pool of water so he could get a better photograph - but without success.  We then saw a group of hirundines above us and were surprised to find three White Collared Swifts with them. All of the birds put on an excellent show for several minutes so we were very pleased with this “bonus” bird.

We were still missing Grey-Headed Quail-Dove so we asked Angel to try to find us one when we met up later in the afternoon. In theory, they are the most common of the four Quail-Doves but try as he might, he couldn’t get us on to one. As we tried, we came across a few birds but once again, we thought it was fairly quiet. Perhaps we should have known that our luck was out when we got caught in a massive shower, which came upon us unannounced. A real soaking for all just about summed it up. We went back to Kikis and had a few beers!

22 March

Our last full day saw us make our way to Bermejas. Angel was busy so we decided we would take pot luck and see whether there was a guide at the Reserve. We had read that a guide called Orlando was often in this area. We had hardly stopped the car before he arrived!

We explained, as best we could, that we wanted to see a Grey-headed Quail-Dove. That was it. Orlando moves at a fair pace. We were off to his domain, a very well-kept set of tracks within the forest. Several Zenaida Doves toyed with us and after 10 minutes of waiting, we moved on to a “crossroads” of tracks, where, in a military-type stake out, Orlando positioned us to ensure we had all tracks covered. “Paciencia” he said as the mossies took varying sized lumps out of me….And then, a movement towards a waterhole and out popped our Grey Headed! As instructed, I whistled to the others and they joined me and all saw the bird well. It then flew off but we waited and it returned. After the second time, we decided to move on. Richard announced that he had been watching a Blue-Winged Warbler for part of the time. That was the only sighting of the trip.

Orlando took us across the road, where a female Bee Hummingbird showed very well. We then went to a site for Ferdandina’s Flicker and also had good views of Trogon and other birds. As we were doing so well, I asked if we could go back to the crossroads in the hope that a Blue-Headed Quail-Dove may appear. Three more Grey-Headed but no Blue-Headed was the result. We then went back to the Bee Hummingbird site where Orlando excitedly announced.” Bee Humming, Bee Humming”.The male had appeared and it showed brilliantly, enabling Richard and Steve to take about 200 shots each!

That was a great end to the morning. We were very pleased that we had decided to go to Bermejas and we thought Orlando was a great chap. He doesn’t speak much English but it doesn’t matter. He’s really enthusiastic and you can’t help but be impressed. Good bloke.

After that, it was back to Kikis to pack, have lunch, say sad farewells and move out. Angel had suggested that we might want to try for the Wren and Sparrow ourselves and as we were passing close by, we thought we would give it a go. We went straight to the Sparrow site. Having parked up, a somewhat large and sweaty chap in a dirty vest on a motorbike appeared and unleashed a volley of Spanish towards us. Even if he had spoken at half the pace, we wouldn’t have needed much Spanish to work out that he was saying “ you haven’t got permission to watch birds here”. We tried to point out that we had been to the same site on the previous day with Angel and that he had suggested we return. Quite why we bothered now becomes something of a mystery to me. You won’t be surprised to learn that he became less animated when we gave him 10 CUC to clear off. Neither will you will be surprised to learn that we didn’t see the Sparrow, nor the Wren, but we did see a Tree Swallow flying over. Whether or not that was worth 10 CUC is left to the reader to decide…..

So, onwards to Havana. Steve took no notice of my concern that we hadn’t enough petrol and soldiered on relentlessly. Neither was he concerned by my discomfort that we wouldn’t get the car back to the Car Hire company by 6pm. Hats off to the lad. We got to the office at 5.50pm [they had to unlock it!] and there was still 10km worth of petrol in the tank!! Perfection…. We toasted our arrival at the Hotel Sevilla with 4 beers and they tasted very good!

We met a little later in the foyer for more beers, had a walk around and decided that Havana wasn’t anything like we expected. Very sad. It was reminiscent of some African standards of living. I was really shocked to see how bad it was in places. We decided that the best thing to do was to cut short our walk and we went to an Italian restaurant for an average meal before walking back to the Hotel, ignoring a number of offers from ladies of the night. We had a few beers in the hotel, joined in the chorus of “Smoke on the Water”, which was gratefully received by the resident band and tried not to wave back to the pretty young girl who was trying to catch our eye……

23 March

The dreaded last day of the holiday. All you want to do is pack and get away but our flight left at 8.30pm so there wasn’t much chance of that. Steve had decided that Botanical Gardens were always the place to go in such circumstances so we agreed and hired a taxi. It was further than we thought and the journey took around 40 minutes. Once there, we had a delay while they tried to find us a guide. We said we didn’t want one, trees not being our area of expertise. Undaunted, they held us back until an English speaking lady appeared. We said we were birders and that we only had a few hours before we had to check out. After a few minutes, it became apparent to her that we would be better off on our own so she left us. We had a fairly long walk to the Japanese Gardens, where there was water. Along the way, several Meadowlarks sang and flitted around and Tom got a new bird for the trip when he spotted a Northern Bobwhite, which eventually flew off with seven others. Excellent views of several Antillean Palm Swifts was the other highlight. We also had our second Magnolia Warbler of the trip and a few waterbirds.

We walked back towards the taxi at the agreed hour and returned to the hotel in good time. A three hour wait in the foyer went fairly quickly. The previously arranged return journey to the airport brought about the expected problem which had been identified on arrival. The driver was expecting to pick up two people, not four, and only had a car, not a minibus! I was so confident that there would be a problem that I had all the papers ready. The driver accepted that we were right so we piled in, with luggage, cameras etc, for a fairly cramped journey back to the airport.

The big question was whether we would have as much difficulty getting out of the country as we had experienced coming into it. We paid our 25 CUC exit fee, went through a couple of checks - and that was that! No problem at all and still the best part of four hours to wait!! That did drag a bit. A Tawny-Shouldered Blackbird flew around the departure lounge for a while so that added interest. Then we had a beer or two and then Graham appeared so we had a chat over a beer and then it was time to go.

Eight and a half hours later, including 20 minutes sleep for me, we landed at Gatwick. Another seven hours at 1620 and we left for Newcastle [ Flybe had withdrawn our originally booked lunchtime flight several weeks earlier]. So, we were fairly fatigued by the time we got home and stayed that way for about a week!

Overall, I think I can say that we had a really good time. On the plus side, I can recommend Andy Mitchell as an excellent “middle man” for anyone wanting to arrange an independant trip. Kikis comes highly recommended too, as do so many of the fabulous birds. I don’t think I can speak too positively of Customs staff though and you do need to make sure that you are not upsetting the “system”, which appears to be well monitored in all ways.

If anyone would like any further information about the trip, I can be contacted at

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