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A Report from

Birding Trip Report from Cuba late November/early December 2000,

Derek Gruar

(full trip report on non-birding matters also available - ask)

Vinales Valley

The Vinales valley, in  the  Pinar del  Rio provence , west of Havana is one of the most visited areas of Cuba due to it’s stunning natural beauty and relaxed atmosphere, here gumboot wearing  machete wielding cowboys are often seen riding around the tobacco plantations.

We paid a cursory visit to the Mural de Prehistoria along with the throngs of bussed in tourists.

To avoid the crowds and to get some serious birding done we parked at the Campismo de Dos Hermanos and headed down a dirt track. On the right-hand side about 50 metres from the car park on the way to the mural entrance, after passing a couple of small houses the path continues to open out with mogotes (these are the towering limestone structures that dominate the landscape in the valley) on the left hand side and directly in front of you.

A path leading through some scrub back towards the Campismo proved productive with Cuban Bullfinch, Stripe-Headed Tanager, Loggerhead Kingbird, White-Crowned Pigeon and Common Ground Dove, while Antillean Palm Swifts fill the air with their squeaky calls.

This path heads into the grounds of the campismo so we retraced our steps back to the small pool where the path divided, and then headed past the small pools where a group of pigs wallowed and flushed Solitary Sandpiper.

Our walk continued to the base of the far mogotes here the area is fenced off but further exploration is prevented by the mogotes themselves. In the scrub here we found very vocal Smooth Billed Anis, Cuban Peewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, Palm Warbler, Cuban and Black faced Grassquits plus Zenaida Dove.

We also had an exploration of the area around the Cuevo del Indio area in the heart of the valley, there are no real trails here so most birding was conducted along the roadside. Around the cave entrance and down the roads yielded American Redstart, Black and White Warbler, Red-Legged Honeycreeper, Cuban Emerald and Greater Antillean Grackle and around the grounds of the Villa San Vincente complex were a number of Red-Legged Thrushes (a mighty impressive looking bird). At dusk, we were also treated to the spectacular sights of several thousand bats swirling across the road and through the forest as we sipped our cans of Cristal.

To reach the reservoir to the North east of Vinales village take road out of village of past the La Ermita hotel. The road swings round to the left towards a military style set of buildings, If you get here first you’ve gone too far as before you reach this point there is an un-signposted (as every road outside of Havana seems to be) track that leads to the reservoir.

New trip species we had included Eastern Meadowlarks, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Osprey and a single Anhinga as well as plenty of Cormorants. Visiting in the heat of the day probably meant that we missed a few things here.

Maria La Gorda

Nestled on the Guanahacabibes peninsular on the western most tip of mainland Cuba, this primarily diving complex was our base for two days. The area consists of a thin strip of powdery sand backed by mangrove swamps, our time constraints meant that we concentrated our birding near the complex. Heading out of the gates and continuing along the road there are large areas of dense vegetation that with a little work yielded Great Lizard Cuckoo, Ruddy Quail Dove, Stripe Headed tanager, Yellow Headed warbler, both species of Grassquit and a treat in Giant Kingbird.

A further 500metres up the road from the complex gates we find a path on the RHS with a couple of small dried pools here we flushed Killdeer. Also present were all the species seen earlier as well as Smooth Billed Ani, Cuban Emerald and possible Grey Headed Quail Dove (Fleeting view only). My attention was drawn to the calls of a hummingbird that differed to that of the Cuban Emerald, after a while I located this bird (I was getting excited about getting to grips with Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird inn the world). On closer inspection this didn’t have the characteristics of Bee Hummingbird and it took a while to determine that this was in fact Ruby Throated Hummingbird, a good North American migrant to find. With limited time to actually go and explore the whole of the peninsular, we feel that there were many more gems that we missed, one of the disadvantages of our whistle-stop tour.

We were happy with the time spent here as we only decided to travel here when all the places we wanted to stay in the Vinales valley had been fully booked, giving us the choice to stay in Pinar del Rio itself or travel to Maria la Gorda.

Las Terrazas

Only one place to stay here and that is the expensive but excellent La Moka Ecolodge, which is situated on a ridge above the self contained community of Las Terrazas.

We arrived mid afternoon and had to wait for our rooms to be cleaned so we were escorted to the bar that overlooks the settlement of Las Terrazas through the trees, in fact the lobby of this hotel has a tree growing through it. Once at the bar we had West Indian Woodpecker and Yellow Bellied Sapsucker a few feet away on the balcony rail.

Bird guides can be hired at $10 a person from the main reception desk. As we woke around 6am the next morning we noted that the cloud had enveloped the whole valley adding to the oppressive humidity. We met our guide at reception just before 7am, and headed off down to the lake (Coot only bird of note here) and followed a trail up into the hills.

Our guide was of top quality, and within minutes, we had excellent views of Cuban Trogon, one of the species that was on my wish list for the trip. We also saw Yellow Headed warbler, Cuban Bullfinch, GL Cuckoo, Black and White warbler, West Indian woodpecker, Northern flicker, Grey Catbird, Cuban Grassquit, Mourning dove, Cuban Blackbird and Cuban Peewee and two of the birds of the trip Black Cowled Oriole and Cuban Tody  (has to be seen to be believed!). Alas no sign of the elusive Bee Hummingbird. The walk was just under four hours so we could return to La Moka in time for last orders on the breakfast menu.

Two other places of interest here are Rio San Jose. We followed the road from La Moka down to the Banos area and were rewarded with flyover Cuban Green woodpecker, American Kestrels in abundance, Belted Kingfisher and Louisiana Waterthrush . From information gleaned from the hotel desk, it appears that this place is busy with tour buses during the day so we counted ourselves fortunate to find this site fairly deserted in the evening.

We were also told about the best palador in the area that is in the Union Jardin area, a track is signposted from the roadside. Here you park up by the small house in front of the cages that house chickens etc., we enquired about eating here and we told to return in an hour.

This allowed some exploration of the shade coffee plantation at the rear of the house, at one point we could see six individual Trogons in the same area of forest at the same time along with Cuban Green woodpecker and Loggerhead Kingbirds making the most of the clearings to feed on airborne insects. The highlight was finding two Ovenbirds in the undergrowth that bordered a narrow stream.

Zapata Peninsular

The reason for staying at Playa Larga is its close proximity to the Zapata peninsular and the area of swampland that holds the majority of Cuba’s endemic bird species. Entrance is only permitted with a guide, this can be organised at the national park headquarters that are on the main road through Playa Larga itself. We took two guided trips at $10 per person for a whole morning.

Upon arrival we were asked what bird species we would like to see, the subject of Bee Hummingbird soon reared it’s ugly little head again. We were then escorted across the road into a small clearing where there were reports that they had been seen a day or two earlier. After 30mins we had no luck and our guide walked on and told us to stay put, within 10mins I was scanning the vegetation and a small blue backed bird caught my eye…there it was, a male humming away 25m away with its back to me. It then chose to perch up for a while giving everyone crippling views while at least one if not two more individuals were actually flying through the undergrowth……mission accomplished!  I’d got a bit carried away and almost missed Northern Parula and an immature Black throated blue warbler that were skulking around on a few feet in front of us………

Our first excursion into Zapata was a jeep based trip (using your hire vehicle) to Las Salinas the southernmost accessible point of the swamp, here dense scrubland overhangs the deeply rutted track that needs some caution to be negotiated. This opens out to give vast

expanses of shallow water either side of the track and it is here that most of the bird life is found including Reddish, Cattle, Great and Snowy Egret, Little Blue, Green, Tricoloured, Great Blue Herons, Greater Flamingo, the hyperactive Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, Osprey, Common Black Hawk, Peregrine, Willet and Lesser Yellowlegs.


Las Salinas

The second guided trip into the Zapata swamp was from the northern edge (Peralta). We had arranged to meet Manuel at the roadside café on the junction of the autopista near Jaguay Grande at 7am. We then travelled west along the autopista for some way before parking on the side of the carriageway and crossing over the road to a narrow track that heads south into the swamp.

The path tracks through some dense woodland here we find Cuban Emerald, Trogon and Tody as well as Grey Catbird, Cuban Bullfinch and in a marshy area Green Heron, Black crowned Night-Heron, Solitary Sandpiper and Northern Waterthrush. From one of the dense tracts of woodland we get a very brief glimpse of a large raptor from the brief view and the local knowledge of our guide we determine this to be Gundlach’s Hawk.

Once we arrive into a more open reedy area Manuel tries to tape lure out Zapata Sparrow, but after 40mins we have not seen or heard anything. He then tries to lure out Zapata Wren, and within a few minutes we are fortunate enough to have a bird responding to the tape and come crawling out of the undergrowth and scramble across the path in front of us. The bird hung around for the best part of half an hour giving remarkable views of this secretive and still largely unknown species. Within a few minutes we had another excellent moment, when the elusive Zapata Rail, one of the rarest birds in the world started calling about five metres from the path, despite our best efforts the bird remained concealed from view. This was a close encounter and we feel privileged to have come so close to getting to see such a rarity. Any disappointment we may have felt about not seeing the rail is relieved somewhat when Manuel tapes out a Cuban Pygmy Owl into the open, much to the disagreement of the local passerines.

To finish the trip off Manuel tries in vain for a couple of hours to find us Fernandina’s Flicker both at the Peralta site and also in the small banana plantations around the area near the Jaguay Grand junction.


The unsuccessful hunt for Fernandina’s Flicker

Cayo Romano

Birding here was only done on the walk back from where we suffered two punctures on our hire car (see trip report), and the resulting efforts to get the car fixed meant that we were unable to visit other parts of the northern keys which would have provided us with several new species for the trip.

The birding on the long walk back however was quite spectacular with Crested Caracara, Common Blackhawk, Wood Stork, White Ibis, Oriente warbler, Yellow Headed Warbler, Praire Warbler, La Sagra’s Flycatcher as well as lots of American migrants previously encountered.(American Redstarts and Palm warblers seem to be in every tree!!).


The Varadero peninsular is Cuba’s equivalent to the Costa del Sol in Spain or Cancun in Mexico and is the flagship for western beach tourism in Cuba. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the near total destruction of the ecological area that is still shown on many maps, we found a small area of low cactus scrub and some salt pans that are ear-marked for development in the near future.

So within 5 years if not sooner I expect the small wetland area that is home to an endemic white sand lizard (and where we found the only Yellow Crowned Night Heron and Northern Harrier of the trip along with Ruddy Turnstones, Least Sandpipers, Semi-palmated sandpipers and Black necked stilts) to be under the tiled surrounds of a hotel complex.

Species List

Pied Billed Grebe
Laguna Leche near Moron

Brown Pelican
Observed most days on north coast

Double Crested Cormorant
Observed most days on north coast

Neo-Tropical Cormorant
Observed most days on north coast

One at Reservoir in Vinales valley

Magnificent Frigate Bird
Several birds over Malecon Havana

Great Blue Heron

Common in wetland areas

Great Egret
Common in wetland areas

Snowy Egret
Feeding group of 20 birds at Las Salinas

Little Blue Heron
Common around Zapata

Tricoloured Heron
Las Salinas, Zapata

Reddish Egret
Predominantly white phase birds at Las Salinas

Cattle Egret
Common and widespread

Green Heron
Locally Common in Zapata region

Black crowned Night Heron
Single Bird at Peralta, Zapata

Yellow Crowned Night Heron
Single bird, Varadero salt pans

White Ibis
Cayo Romano and Zapata Peninsular

Roseate Spoonbill
3 Birds at Las Salinas , Zapata peninsular

Wood Stork
Single Bird in Flight low over Cayo Romano

Turkey Vulture

Greater Flamingo
Large concentrations in both Zapata and Cayo Coco

Blue Winged Teal
Common in any area with expanses of mangrove swamp, particularly Cayo Romano

Ruddy Duck
Single birds at Laguna leche and Las Terrazas

Common in areas with open water

Gundlach’s Hawk
Single Bird Flushed along track from Peralta, Zapata

Common Black-Hawk
Several around Las Salinas, Zapata and a pair on Cayo Romano

Red-Tailed hawk
Odd birds seen on roadsides

Crested Caracara
3 individuals Cayo Romano

American Kestrel
Commonest Falcon, particularly around Las Terrazas

Single Bird Las Salinas, Zapata

Zapata Rail (heard)
From trail Peralta

Common Moorhen
Laguna Leche

American Coot
20+ Las Terrazas Lake

Associated with any small ponds with muddy edges, Zapata, Maria La Gorda

Black-Necked Stilt
Single Bird at Varadero saltpans

Northern Jacana
Two birds at Crocodile Farm, Zapata

Greater Yellowlegs
10Birds Las Salinas, Zapata was highest count

Solitary Sandpiper
Singles from Peralta and Vinales Valley

5-10Birds Las Salinas was highest count

Ruddy Turnstone
Up to 10 birds on Varadero salt pans

Semi-Palmated Sandpiper
Small flocks upto 50 individuals at Varadero and the Vinales valley res.

Least Sandpiper
3 Birds on Varadero saltpans

Laughing Gull
Common on coast

Ringed Bill Gull
Locally common on coast

Caspian Tern
Several birds at Las Salinas, Zapata

Royal Tern
Common on coast

White Crowned Pigeon
Local in Vinales valley and Las terrazas

White winged Dove
Widespread and locally abundant

Zenaida dove
Widespread and common

Mourning Dove
Widespread and common

Ruddy Quail Dove
Occasional around Maria La Gorda

Cuban Parrot
5 birds flying over Playa Larga Zapata was the highest count

Great Lizard Cuckoo
Locally common, Las Terrazas, Maria La Gorda

Smooth Billed Ani

Cuban Pygmy-Owl
Single bird tape-lured in at Peralta, Zapata

Antillean Palm Swift
Locally abundant, particularly Vinales Valley

Cuban Emerald
Locally abundant in suitable habitat

Ruby-Throated Humming Bird
Single at Maria La Gorda

Bee Hummingbird
Three birds at Playa Larga

Cuban Trogon
Common in Las Terrazas and around Zapata

Cuban Tody
Pairs seen around Zapata and Las Terrazas

Belted Kingfisher
Rio San Jose (Las Terrazas), Havana, Zapata, Cayo Romano

West Indian Woodpecker
Common in suitable habitat

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker
Las Terrazas and Playa Larga

Cuban Green Woodpecker
Las Terrazas, Zapata

Northern Flicker
Two birds at Las Terrazas

Cuban Peewee
Widespread but not common in wooded areas, Vinales Valley

La Sagra’s Flycatcher
Single birds at Cayo Romano, Maria La Gorda

Loggerhead Kingbird
Widespread and Common

Giant Kingbird
Single bird at Maria La Gorda

Cuban Vireo
Several birds on Cayo Romano

Cuban Crow/Palm Crow
Several birds on Guanahacibibes peninsular

Zapata Wren
Single Birds tape lured onto path at Peralta

Cuban Solitaire (heard)
Around Vinales Valley

Red-Legged Thrush
Common, and abundant around the Sierra Escambrey

Grey Catbird
Widespread but elusive seen at Zapata and Las Terrazas

Northern Mockingbird
Widespread and Common

Northern Parula
Single birds from Cayo Romano and Playa larga

Yellow Warbler
Cayo Romano

Black-throated Blue Warbler
One immature at Playa Larga

Yellow throated warbler
Varadero, Cayo Romano

Praire warbler
Las Terrazas, Cayo Romano

Palm Warbler
Most common and widespread passerine

Black and white Warbler
Frequently encountered in woodland areas

American Redstart
Common migrant

Two birds in Union Jardin, Las Terrazas

Northern waterthrush
Singles at Las Terrazas and Peralta

Louisiana Waterthrush
Single bird at Las Terrazas

Yellow Headed Warbler
Locally common particularly at Maria La Gorda

Oriente Warbler
Several birds on Cayo Romano

Red-Legged Honeycreeper
Small groups of 5-10 individuals at Vinales Valley (Cuevo del Indio and in Las Terrazas)

Stripe-headed Tanager
Locally common

Cuban Bullfinch
Widespread and Common

Cuban Grassquit
Vinales Valley, Las Terrazas

Yellow-faced Grassquit
Zapata, Vinales, Las Terrazas

Eastern Meadowlark
Several birds around reservoir in Vinales Valley

Cuban Blackbird
First seen from hotel windows first morning, daily                                       

Tawny Shouldered Blackbird
Small flock seen from car heading east from Trinidad was highest count (15 birds)

Greater Antillean Grackle                                          
Several birds around enterance to Cuevo del Indio (Vinales valley) was the highest concentration

Shiny Cowbird
Locally common

Black Cowled Oriole
Three birds around Las Terazas

House Sparrow                                                   
Widespread and common around human settlements


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