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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Cuba 1st-12th April 2006,
There are plenty of excellent Cuba birding trip reports on the internet already, so I intentionally kept this report short with focus on new information, rather than repeating what is already well known.
We birded the classic locations:
- 1.5 day in La Guira
and Soroa in the west of the country
- 2.5 days in Zapata in the south
- one afternoon and one morning in the Najasa area in the east
- 2 full days in the Cayo Coco area
In the planning we had anticipated 3.5 days in Zapata but we’d seen all goodies after 2.5 days so we left early. We spent an extra half day in Cayo Coco and the other half day in Havana at the end of the trip. Total trip list was 153 birds.
AF 7184 Thalys (train) Brussels – Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG) 10:43
AF 474 Paris CDG – Havana 13:50
AF 479 Havana – Paris CDG 20:30
AF 7183 Thalys (train) Paris CDG – Brussels 12:43
Price for the return flight was 722 EUR per person. We bought the required tourist card through the travel agent (www.joker.be) as well, 22 EUR a piece.
Take enough cash, no dollars because you need to pay 10% tax when you exchange them. Euro’s were fine. Credit cards can not be used very often, I did not see a single ATM. Cuba is not as cheap as I expected, we spent about 500 EUR per person for accommodation, food, petrol, guides, during our 11 day stay.
We prebooked our car through www.havanautos.com, the only Cuban car rental website that allows online interactive car reservations with credit card payment, as far as I can tell. The website is affiliated with Cubacar which supplies the cars. We were issued a voucher for a Hyundai Atos for 10 full days, for 448.59 USD which was surprisingly cheap. As expected, we had to pay extra for the insurance though (100 convertible pesos).
The car we actually got on arrival was a rather old Peugeot 206 with 91000 km on the odometer, with lots of scratches and dents. We didn’t mind too much, after all if you leave with a dented car and put another scratch on it along the way (and we probably did ), nobody will notice. And nobody did.
Luckily the engine was fine, but we did have a problem with the trunk – after one day, the lock didn’t work anymore and we were unable to lock the car. We fixed this by locking the trunk from the inside using steel wire, which I took out again just before returning the car. We had one flat tire near Moron.
Cuba is notorious for its bad and/or missing road signs, I can only confirm this. We got lost a few times, on other occasions we were cruising down the highway when suddenly the road ran straight into a lake, etc etc. We brought a GPS which was extremely useful, not only to find the waypoints provided in John van der Woude’s trip report (http://home.tiscali.nl/jvanderw/cuba01/itinerary.htm), but also to know the general direction you’re heading in.
The set of waypoints by JVDW is very complete, I saved very few additional waypoints that could be useful:
Hotel Mirador – San Diego de los Banos 22°38'49''N 83°22'22''W
Red-shouldered Blackbird 22°23'10''N 81°09'34''W
Casa Particular Sr. Juan Clemente in Moron 22°06'33''N 78°37'43''W
No guide in La Guira/Soroa.
We contacted Chino (= guide in Zapata) in advance via e-mail (email@example.com), he is very responsive. He is also contactable via telephone on +53 45 987354, best to try after 8PM local time. He charged 96 convertible pesos for 5 excursions (2 mornings, 3 evenings) and additional owling, we paid him 120 pesos.
We tried to contact Pedro Regalado via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) but he never replied to my e-mails. I realised afterwards that this is not his personal e-mail address (it’s his general office e-mail or something) so perhaps you need to put his name in the subject to ensure that the receiver understands that it’s for Pedro.
Since we hadn’t been able to contact him up front, we just knocked on his door and he was home. He didn’t charge anything but asked for a donation for the new house he is building, we gave him 50 pesos for one evening and one morning excursion and lunch at his house. For the record, his current postal address is:
Apartado Postal 161
No guide in the Cayo Coco area, although Pedro gave us the address of a friend of his who could supposedly show us the local race of Sandhill Crane (but we didn’t try). His address is:
Calle Novena #28 entre 12 y Final
Other trip reports
We used the following trip reports during the preparation of this trip (many thanks to the authors):
Saturday April 1st
We had to hurry to get from the train to the airplane in Paris, it was the first day of the Easter holiday and the airport was totally crowded. The flight was one hour late but otherwise uneventful. Slow immigration and even slower luggage handling on arrival. After we picked up the car, we headed west towards San Diego de los Banos where we planned to spend the night in hotel Mirador. It was late and we were rather tired, but we made it. I had tried to prebook a room but never got a reply to my e-mails, luckily they still had a room available.
Sunday April 2nd
An early start at Cabanas de los Pinos in La Guira, a bit hard to find initially but the GPS was helpful. The first bird I saw properly was a Cuban Solitaire, singing from the top of a leafless tree! Olive-capped Warblers were also very vocal and easily taped in, so we saw our two western Cuban target species within the first hour. Additionally, we enjoyed our first easy species (Trogon, Tody, West Indian Woodpecker, …). Two dark pigeons flying past were probably Scaly-napeds, we got better views later at Soroa. Black-whiskered Vireo was ubiquitous, other trip reports from March or earlier don’t always mention this species so I guess they must have just returned in great numbers from their wintering quarters. We ran into Gyorgy Szimuly, a birder from Hungary, who I had previously met in November last year in Lauca NP in northern Chile – it’s a small world after all !
Had lunch at the hotel, then we headed east to Soroa. We tried to find a suitable birdy reservoir along the way but didn’t see anything interesting – I think most ducks had left the country. Hotel at Soroa was full (Germans!) so we stayed in a casa particular (drive c400m past the hotel, first blue two-story house on the right-hand side). Checked out the Mirador trail late afternoon, flight views of Ruddy Quail-Dove.
Monday April 3rd
Early start on the Mirador trail. At a certain point, the trail turns 90° to the right, with smaller trails leading to the left and straight ahead (down). We heard Blue-headed Quail-Dove calling at these crossroads, and it didn’t take long before we were watching a superb pair on the trail! The birds disappeared towards the left, and a little bit later we heard and saw another (presumably different) pair c100m further up on the trail! Mission accomplished, so we headed towards Zapata around 9AM.
We arrived at the Crocodile Farm around noon, paid a short visit and had lunch here. Continued to Playa Larga and found Chino’s house, he wasn’t home but the lady from Nivaldo’s casa particular called him up. Late afternoon birding at Palpite, producing our first Bee Hummingbird (rather poor views of a singing male in bad light), Cuban Pygmy Owl and Bare-legged Owl (in a nesting tree). No Quail-Doves though. Excellent food at Nivaldo’s (lobster).
Tuesday April 4th
Soplillar with Chino at 7AM. We started with great views of a perched Key West Quail-Dove, we did not track down the calling Blue-headed Quail-Dove nearby given our great views the previous day. We saw a few good warbler flocks and a distant Fernandina’s Flicker, but not much otherwise. During the hot hours of the day we went for a drive to Playa Giron and visited the museum. In the evening Chino took us to a nesting tree of Fernandina’s Flicker (great views) and later to La Turba, the Zapata Wren area. We heard a wren calling from a distance, but were unsuitably dressed to go into the (almost dry) swamp because of the sharp vegetation. An owling session after dinner did not produce Stygian Owl.
Wednesday April 5th
Again Soplillar with Chino at 7AM, a slightly different area this time. After an extensive search, we finally heard a Gray-headed Quail-Dove, and it didn’t take long to track down the calling perched individual. Again, excellent views. Chino then took us to a nest site of Gundlach’s Hawk – there were probably chicks in the nest because the bird was very aggressive and showed very well. We only stayed for a few moments in order to limit disturbance. And last but not least, we obtained scope views of a perched male Bee Hummingbird. In the afternoon, we went snorkling and made a walk at Cueva de los Peces. We returned to La Turba with Chino at 5PM and obtained stunning views of a pair of Zapata Wrens. We had to walk into the swamp to get close enough, proper footwear and long trousers are definitely required for this or you will get cuts from the vegetation. As we were driving back to Playa Larga, Chino showed us the exact place for Red-shouldered Blackbird (almost exactly 2 km north of the parking of the Crocodile Farm, see GPS waypoints). At dusk we drove back to Soplillar for Greater Antillean Nightjar – no birds at the primary site but Chino had a backup site up his sleeve, and we got flight views only. We retried the Stygian Owl after dinner, this time we were successful just when we were about to give up. Normally Chino sees the birds at this office (4km north of Playa Larga) or at Hotel Playa Larga, but we saw it a few km along the road towards Playa Giron near another hotel. The bird flew overhead in response to tape and perched c75m away. Driving back, we picked up a Short-eared Owl that had just been hit by another car – we mistakenly believed it to be a Stygian Owl but it was too small and too brown for that species.
Thursday April 6th
All Zapata specialities were secured (except the rail which, in the light of the recent information that its known calls are now presumed to belong to Spotted Rails, is probably impossible to see), so we headed east towards Najasa. It’s a very long drive, so we made a few roadside stops. We failed to find Estacion Ecologica Amarillas, actually we probably did find the area but there was very little water and very little birds. A second stop at the bridge over the Zaza river produced a nice flock of Cuban Martins. We knocked on Pedro’s door in late afternoon and luckily he was at home. He was very hospitable, and promptly arranged a room for us in the ranch/hotel in the nearby Belén national park. After that he showed us the Cuban Palm Crows and Plain Pigeon, and we made a short walk to the small lake in an attempt to see West Indian Whistling-Duck. We didn’t see the ducks, but a fly-by Antillean Nighthawk (heard only) was a good bird. The small lake is supposedly also good for Yellow-breasted Crake, but we didn’t see or hear any.
Friday April 7th
The day started at 5.30AM when we saw two massive Cuban Tarantulas (or a related species) crossing the road as we drove to Pedro’s house, as well as a hunting Short-eared Owl. Pedro first took us on a long (2km) walk to the big lake, where we flushed a pair of West-Indian Whistling-Ducks on arrival! One bird perched in the top of a tree, allowing reasonable scope views. We walked back to the car (spotting the only female Cape May Warbler of the trip) and proceeded to an old house nearby with a scrubby garden that held a pair of Cuban Grassquits. A big tree just down the road produced the last target birds of the area, a splendid pair of Giant Kingbirds. We had lunch (excellent!) at Pedro’s where I showed him how to operate a Canon EOS camera that was donated to him – we took a few pictures of a flock of Cuban Parakeets that was feeding on guava fruit in his garden! By the way, Pedro is building a new house and will move pretty soon. His new address is not so far away so it will probably still be easy to find him (just ask his former neighbours).
By midday we said goodbye to Pedro and headed to Moron where we stayed for 3 nights in the superb Casa Particular of Sr. Juan Clemente Pérez and Sra. Belgica Silva, Castillo No. 189 (e/ San Jose y Serafin Sanchez), Moron. This is in the second parallel street left of the main street.
Saturday April 8th
Early start but we had a flat tire so we lost some time and only arrived on Cayo Paredon Grande around 10.30AM. We stopped at John van der Woude’s waypoint 53 and it took us exactly 10 seconds to find Cuban Gnatcatcher which was singing right beside the car. I then put on the Thick-billed Vireo tape and immediately several individuals were responding and showing very well. That was easier than expected!
Our second stop was the road to Flamenco beach, but at this time it had become too hot and there was little or no bird activity so we decided to try again in the evening for the Zapata Sparrow. The same story at Cayo Guillermo where there was no mockingbird activity, so we headed towards the beach. At around 5PM there was a short thunderstorm, and that was just what we needed – temperatures went down to about 25°C, and all mockingbirds of Cayo Guillermo perched in the tops of the bushes to dry, including at least 4 Bahama Mockingbirds. Our retry at Flamenco Road was equally successful, we saw a pair of Zapata Sparrows c.150 m up the road near a small clearing.
Sunday April 9th
We had run out of target species so we took it easy this day. A mixed flock of Western/Semipalmated/Least Sandpipers was very interesting. Visited Cueva del Jabali in late morning, too hot already to see any good birds but looked like a very promising area. We also visited the lake opposite the Flamenco Beach road, we had to walk the last stretch because there were trees on the road (trail maintenance).
Monday April 10th
Long drive to Havana, visit to the old town in the afternoon. Still no sign of our last target bird, Antillean Palm-Swift.
Tuesday April 11th
At last, Antillean Palm-Swift flying across the square in front of the Cathedral. Visit to the Museo de la Revolucion, quite nice. Return flight in the evening was uneventful.