Travelling to Cuba for Americans isn't easy. There are many rules to sort out so it is best to go with a licensed organized group. Our trip was with Alvaro's Adventures, led by the expert birder and accomplished ornithologist Alvaro Jaramillo. I'll just say right up front that Alvaro is a fantastic tour leader and really nice person; we chose well for this tour. Alvaro's Cuban guide partner is Arturo Kirkconnell, the top birder and ornothologist in all of Cuba. He's also co-author of the book Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba. Arturo's knowledge of Cuban birds is second to none.
Our bird survey tour started in the city of Camaguey, built in the 1500's and known for it's maze-like street layout to confuse invading pirates. We had some time on the first day to poke around while waiting for others in the group to arrive. Thanks Google Maps for keeping us sane while navigating on foot this amazing city. We didn't see any pirates...
Susan loves to visit historic cemeteries, how could we pass this one up?
This guy is the actual model the sculptor used 16 years ago! He stops by for a short time each day and poses next to his doppelganger. When told by a local that it could happen I thought it would be fun. And then it happened! Too cool.
Our first birding destination had us staying near Camaguey. Najasa in the morning was amazing as we picked up many Cuban endemics and specialties including Cuban Palm Crow and Giant Kingbird. As it was our first day in Cuba we piled up an unsustainable number of life birds, but nobody was complaining!
|Cuban Palm Crow|
In the afternoon we took a short drive north of town to a beautiful slot canyon in a limestone mountain. More great birds including Cuban Vireo and Pewee.
Cayo Coco is a big tourist destination for Europeans and Canadians (among others). There are huge resorts along the beaches, further reducing the available bird habitat. One of these mega-resorts was to be our lodging for our two days on the island. The all-inclusive food and drink (including alcohol) sounds good at first, but the over-done tourist activities and huge crowds put a damper on it somewhat. Still, there's lots of good habitat to bird nearby, and who can pass up unlimited Cuban Rum! :-) We made the best of it. Susan called the spectacle one of Dante's 9 Circles of Hell. Not sure if it was Greed or Gluttony. She did find a Chocolate Liqueur that went down pretty smooth. ;-)
|Decimated habitat from the hurricane|
|The Pullman resort.|
|More damaged mangrove habitat|
|Hunting for the Thick-billed Vireo|
Of course the birds are what its all about and find some we did. Of particular note were the Bahama Mockingbird and endemic Cuban Gnatcatcher. It was really cool to see a Great White Heron up close. This bird is considered a color morph of Great Blue Heron in all the field guides, but if you look closely at the breeding biology and genetics, it is much more likely a full species. Now if we could just get someone to write the paper...
|Oriente Warbler, one of two members of the Cuban endemic warbler family Teretistri|
|Great White Heron|
|Key West Quail-Dove|
|Cuban Green Woodpecker|
|Immature Gundlach's Hawk|
There were lots of other birds around the garden including one of my favorites from the trip - the diminutive Cuban Tody. The "cute factor" for this tiny bird is off the charts!
The next stop was the infamous Bay of Pigs and the Zapata Swamp area. It has been a while since I looked at this period in American history, and it was fascinating to go to a local museum one afternoon and learn about it from the Cuban point of view.
|"Here was the decisive fight for victory"|
|In the town of Giron: "The first great defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America"|
|"Until here the mercenaries arrived.," or the end of the advance of the US invasion.|
|Blue-headed Quail-Dove displaying|
Lest we forget there is another endemic Cuban hummingbird, the Cuban Emerald. It is also a stunner.
|Male Bee Hummingbird|
|A male Bee Hummingbird displays for a female by flaring his "whiskers" and wagging his tail|
|Female Bee Hummingbird|
|It really is tiny|
|Casa del Zunzún (Bee Hummingbird House)|
Continuing our string of amazing highlights, the next morning we were off to the Zapata Swamp on the northern end of the bay. Here is the home of the Zapata Wren, the only member of the genus Ferminia and found nowhere but this area. We boated into the swamp down an early 1900's man-made canal built for logging, and turned up an amazingly cooperative male wren. We were told the view we had was among the best ever, wide open and singing up a storm. Most visitors get just a glimpse of the bird scurrying through the bushes, and some go home skunked. We were very fortunate.
|Greater Antillean Nightjar|
|West Indian Woodpeckers|
|The mountains of Viñales|
|Cuban Solitaire habitat|
|The fleet of rides|
|Lily and Teri in their cool car. Our normal ride sits idle in the background|
|Our cool car|
Claudia was our cultural guide for the day. Sweet, sassy, super knowledgeable - we really enjoyed her interpretation of life in Cuba, both in the past and now. It's complicated to understand life in Cuba, but she did a great job of educating us. We had a great time!
|Claudia talks to the group|
What a great way to end a fantastic adventure. Cuba was everything we expected and more. The people were friendly and welcomed us wherever we went. Susan and I were asked more times than we can count, "Where are you from?" When we answered "California," we always got a smile and often a handshake. "We love America!" I can truthfully say that we loved Cuba too.
I ended the tour with 153 species, 49 life birds. Susan got one more with the Ruddy Quail-Dove. We saw all of the possible Cuban endemics (the Zapata Rail hasn't been seen or heard in 20 years). If you are so inclined you can look through the lists on my Cuba eBird profile page.
A very special thanks to our travel team: driver Lorenzo and fixer Carlos. You guys were great and we really do appreciate your efforts. Muchas gracias amigos!
Also a big thank you to Arturo. Your bird knowledge and finding ability are legendary and we have first hand experience to know why. And when we are with Arturo, "Everything is under control."
And to Alvaro, you put on a great tour and are a fantastic leader. We very much appreciate everything and suspect this won't be our only tour with Alvaro's Adventures!
|The team, Carlos, Alvaro, Arturo, and Lorenzo|