Trip Report


Venture to Cuba
Western Mountains, Zapata Peninsula, Northern Archipelago, & Havana
December 4-15, 2017

Trip Report

 

Itinerary at a glance:
Day 1 (Dec 4) – Arrival in Havana; Las Terrazas
Day 2 (Dec 5) – Las Terrazas; Hacienda Cortina
Day 3 (Dec 6) – La Guira National Park; transfer to Zapata
Day 4 (Dec 7) – Zapata – Bermejas blind/refuge; Soplillar
Day 5 (Dec 8) – Santo Tomas; Bee Hummingird house; Las Salinas
Day 6 (Dec 9) – Rancho la Belen, drive to Camaguey
Day 7 (Dec 10) – Camaguey to Cayo Coco
Day 8 (Dec 11) – Cayo Paredon Grande & Cayo Guillermo
Day 9 (Dec 12) – Cayo Coco; Transfer to Sanci Spiritus
Day 10 (Dec 13) – Rancho Hatuey; Transfer to Havana
Day 11 (Dec 14) – Havana tour
Day 12 (Dec 15) – Departure

 

Our maiden Venture to Cuba began with a brief and painless direct flight (2.5 hrs) from Charlotte to Havana. Our local cultural guide & driver for the trip (Alberto & Rafael) met us here along with Gary of Caribbean Conservation Trust, and we gathered up our bags and boarded the bus. Our first stage was the lushly-vegetated Western Mountains, realm of the endemic Cuban Solitaire – a visually non-descript bird with a fantastic, one-of-a-kind song. Before leaving Havana though, we visited the home of Orlando Garrido, co-author of the Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba, to acquaint ourselves with some of the primary endemic targets of the upcoming trip. Orlando enthusiastically shared his collection of study skins and regaled to us field stories from his many years as a naturalist in Cuba – a great and informative way to start the trip! With our birding appetites duly whetted, we thanked Orlando and made our way to our tranquil hotel in the ecological community of Las Terrazas, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra de los Rosario Mountains. After checking in, we wasted no time in getting out the binoculars and finding some of the tour’s first birds – the endemic Cuban Trogon & Cuban Green Woodpecker, plus such West Indian endemics as West Indian Woodpecker, Loggerhead Kingbird, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Red-legged Thrush, and Cuban Emerald. An outing after dinner turned up another endemic – Cuban Pygmy Owl, as well as spotlight views of a Stygian Owl.

 

The next day found us further exploring the forests & environs of the Las Terrazas area. We soon found endemics such as Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Trogons to be quite common, although we never tired of seeing them. New endemic sightings for the morning included our first look at the diminutive Cuban Tody, Cuban Oriole, and Yellow-headed Warbler, plus regional endemics Olive-capped Warbler, Cuban Bullfinch, and Western Spindalis. After lunch at Cafetal Buena Vista, a restored 19th century coffee plantation featuring great views of the surrounding mountains & countryside, we stopped at a nearby farm, where we found good numbers of the spectacular Cuban Grassquit. Next up was Hacienda Cortina, a former lavish estate, where we found an accommodating Giant Kingbird, yet another endemic.

 

Rising early the following morning we headed into La Guira National Park to Cueva de los Portales, an incredible limestone through-cave of historical significance, having served as the military headquarters of Che Guevara during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The fascinating landscape here is dotted with mogotes - steep, forested limestone hills. We heard the unbelievable song of numerous Cuban Solitaires echoing off these hills, and eventually got stellar looks at one perched just above the trail. We also had side-by-side views of Cuban Tody and Cuban Vireo, plus Great Lizard Cuckoo, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Scaly-naped & White-crowned Pigeons, and several overwintering wood warblers.

 

Our next 3 days were spent in the fabulous Zapata National Park. From our base in Playa Larga on the infamous Bay of Pigs, we explored this vast and vitally important wetland complex for yet more endemics. Near the village of Bermejas, we had both Gray-fronted and Blue-headed Quail-Doves in the same binocular view, plus Zenaida Dove and a noisy flock of Cuban Parakeets. After a short walk in the woods, we arrived at a cavity where we ended up getting lengthy views of a Bare-legged Owl, previously known as the Cuban Screech Owl. Several stops through the wet palm savannah turned up a few Fernandina’s Flickers and Red-shouldered Blackbirds, the latter of which were formerly considered conspecific (meaning to be the same species) with the more familiar Red-winged Blackbird. In the farmland at Soplillar we found Cuban Crow, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, and a few beautiful Cuban Parrots – not full endemics but endemic subspecies. Our boat trip into the swamp at Santo Tomas (a must-do for any birder visiting Cuba) was fantastic and soon after embarking from the dock we’d seen several Zapata Sparrows, one of 2 primary targets in this region of Cuba. The other, the Zapata Wren, we found after a bit more trying but eventually got stellar views of one singing. This large wren, which recalls a House Wren on steroids, put on quite the show for us and was certainly one of the birds of the trip.

 

After our boat trip in the swamp and a delicious lunch in Playa Larga, we visited the nearby ‘Hummingbird House,’ one of the best places in the area to see the Bee Hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird. We were treated to intimate looks at several individuals, including a young male with a hint of red tinging the gorget feathers. It was fantastic to speak with the owners of the house and learn about all that they do for the hummingbirds here - most notably, capturing them and bringing them inside their home and thus providing refuge during Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in Cuba just a few months before our visit. Our final evening in Zapata was spent at the refuge at Las Salinas, a haven for many water birds & waders. The sight of hundreds of American Flamingos amid the backdrop of a spectacular Caribbean sunset was truly unforgettable, and on our drive out we managed to get good views of several Cuban Black Hawks, capping off a memorable 3-day stint in Zapata.

 

The next 2 days were mostly travel days, but we did spend a whole morning at Rancho la Belen, where we found the trip’s first Plain Pigeons & Palm Crows (both regional endemics). After one night in the colonial city of Camaguey, we turned north to Cayo Coco. With Hurricane Irma passing through a few months prior and decimating large swaths of mangroves, we were curious how the endemic birds in the area had fared. Thankfully we had no trouble finding Oriente Warbler and Cuban Gnatcatcher, but some of the West Indian endemics were notably absent – Thick-billed Vireo, Bahama Mockingbird, Key West Quail-Dove, and West Indian Whistling-Duck were all missed, although we did hear that all these had been seen since the storm. Overall, bird numbers were noticeably lower in the keys compared to other areas we visited, no doubt a result of Irma. Hopefully Cuba is spared from future catastrophic storms and the bird populations have adequate time to recover.

 

After a few relaxing days spent on the coast and rounding out our bird list with some nice shorebirds, it was time to switch gears and head back west to Havana for a dose of culture. Arriving early in the afternoon, we drove down the Malecón towards our hotel, delighting at the view of the sparkling Caribbean Sea and the waves crashing over the seawall and into the road. Is there a finer way to arrive in this historic, colorful city? The rest of our day was free to spend however we wished, and we met up the next morning after a leisurely breakfast for our tour of Havana. Like most who visit, we piled into classic, convertible taxis (one hot pink, the other a vibrant red) and made our way to Revolution Square. We couldn’t help but notice a few American Kestrels and Eurasian Collared-Doves flying between the monuments during our history lesson, but once we arrived in Habana Vieja our focus had completely turned towards taking in all the colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and fascinating sculptures. Any visit to Cuba, birding trip or not, should certainly include time spent in Havana – there’s simply too much here to see and do! We walked through all 4 plazas, took a self-guided tour of the Havana Cathedral, visited an art studio, had a delicious meal complete with live Cuban music and dance, strolled through a bustling market, and of course, bought some famous cigars and rum!

 

Needless to say, our maiden Venture to Cuba had it all! The few Cuban and West Indian endemics that we missed were made up for with fabulous Cuban culture, fantastic scenery, excellent food, and last but not least - all those cool, classic cars!

 

Aaron Steed

    

 

 

Birds and other wildlife seen or heard on our Venture to Cuba
Western Mountains, Zapata Peninsula, Northern Archipelago, & Havana
December 4-15, 2017

 

136 species (including 23/26 endemics)

 

Gadwall
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Helmeted Guineafowl
Least Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe
Magnificent Frigatebird
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
White Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill
American Flamingo
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Cuban Black-Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Purple Gallinule
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Limpkin
Black-bellied Plover
Snowy Plover
Killdeer
American Oystercatcher
Black-necked Stilt
Northern Jacana
Greater Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper

Willet

 

 

Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Sanderling
Short-billed Dowitcher
Laughing Gull
Caspian Tern
Royal Tern
Black Skimmer
Rock Pigeon
Scaly-naped Pigeon
White-crowned Pigeon
Plain Pigeon
Zenaida Dove
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Common Ground-Dove
Gray-fronted Quail-Dove
Blue-headed Quail-Dove

White-winged Dove
Great Lizard Cuckoo
Smooth-billed Ani
Bare-legged Owl
Cuban Pygmy-Owl

Stygian Owl
Antillean Palm Swift
Bee Hummingbird
Cuban Emerald
Cuban Trogon
Cuban Tody

Belted Kingfisher
West Indian Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Cuban Green Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Fernandina’s Flicker
Crested Caracara
American Kestrel
Merlin
Cuban Parakeet
Cuban Parrot
Cuban Pewee
La Sagra’s Flycatcher
Loggerhead Kingbird
Giant Kingbird
Cuban Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

 

 

 

Palm Crow
Cuban Crow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Zapata Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Cuban Gnatcatcher
Cuban Solitaire

Red-legged Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Ovenbird
Louisiana Waterthrush
Northern Waterthrush
Black-and-white Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Cape May Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Palm Warbler
Olive-capped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Yellow-headed Warbler
Oriente Warbler

Summer Tanager
Western Spindalis
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Cuban Bullfinch
Cuban Grassquit
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Zapata Sparrow
Indigo Bunting
Red-shouldered Blackbird
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Cuban Blackbird
Greater Antillean Grackle
Cuban Oriole
House Sparrow