Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Cuba Bird Survey

Cuban Tody

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!

Giant Kingbird
Cuban Parakeet

Cuban Parrot

Smooth-billed Ani
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.

Cuban Pewee

Cuban Vireo
The next day we were off to the small island of Cayo Coco in the north. The area was hit hard by the hurricane so bird finding was difficult for some of the specialties. Most notably missing was the near-endemic Thick-billed Vireo. Hopefully there are a few birds hiding in the decimated mangrove swamps and they can bounce back. 

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...

Bahama Mockingbird

Cuban Gnatcatcher

Oriente Warbler, one of two members of the Cuban endemic warbler family Teretistri

Great White Heron

Key West Quail-Dove
Cuban Bullfinch
Cuban Green Woodpecker

Zapata Sparrow
 At one stop Alvaro spotted a Western Kingbird in the bushes across the way. It was only the second record of this species in Cuba (Arturo found the first one over 30 years before) and first to be photo documented. Very cool.

Western Kinbird
We escaped the island and continued our travel west and south for most of the day to the beautiful port city of Trinidad. An evening cultural visit to the town was a lot of fun. 

Continuing west we stopped at a botanical garden for a stake-out nest of the difficult to see endemic Gundlach's Hawk (a large accipiter). The adults were around but not so photogenic.

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!

Cuban Tody

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.
Oh birds... Yes, there were lots of birds around the bay, and we spent most of two days checking them out. In a dry forest we watched a Blue-headed Quail-Dove from a hide, and trekked a little for loads of migrating neotropical warblers and a great view of the difficult Grey-fronted Quail-Dove. 

Blue-headed Quail-Dove displaying

A Cuban Trogan gave me a decent look for the camera.

Cuban Trogon
An afternoon visit to a local home for hummingbird feeders was a trip highlight. Here was probably the bird of the trip, the smallest species in the world - Bee Hummingbird. Males are 2.2 inches long and under 2 grams! A US penny weighs 2.5 grams!! Wrap your head around this: you could mail FOURTEEN of them with one normal envelope stamp!!!

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

Displaying male

It really is tiny

Cuban Emerald

Casa del Zunzún (Bee Hummingbird House)
On a personal note: we stopped along the way to the hummingbird spot to grab a few minutes of internet time at a public wi-fi spot (getting connected is always an adventure in Cuba). Although it wasn't completely unexpected, I found out at that time that my father had passed away the day before. A couple hours of total immersion with the hummingbirds as a distraction was welcome. I will always remember those beautiful little gems and how they helped me start the healing of my heart.

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.

Water Lily

Zapata Wren

Zapata Wren
More land birding turned up great views of many repeat species, plus a walk out to a stake-out Greater Antillean Nightjar nest! 

Greater Antillean Nightjar
Cuban Oriole
Great Lizard-Cuckoo

Turkey Vulture
Red-shouldered Blackbird
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird

West Indian Woodpeckers
All too soon it was time to move on, but there were a few more endemics to see. We stopped at lunch near Terrazas for a pair of Stygian Owls and our first look at the pine specialist Olive-capped Warbler (no good photos, but I know where that are some good ones I could steal :-) ).  

Stygian Owl
After lunch, another stop for the rare and endemic Cuban Grassquit, along with the more common Yellow-faced Grassquit. The Cuban Grassquit has been hit hard with the cagebird trade and is difficult to find these days. What a shame.

Cuban Grassquit

Yellow-faced Grassquit
With one endemic to go, we ended the day in the spectacular Viñales area ready to seek out a Cuban Solitaire the next morning. After a brief unsuccessful search in spitting rain we headed to the Che' Cave, or Cueva de los Portales. During the 1962 Missile Crisis, Commander Ernesto Che' Guevera moved the Western Army command center to a natural cave area in the Sierra de los Órganos. It is now a national monument. On the way into the cave we heard a Solitaire singing its beautiful flute-like song. It reminded me of the sound of summer in the Sierra Nevada with Hermit Thrush song echoing through the mountains. The song was beautiful and so was the bird. 

Cuban Solitaire 
The mountains of Viñales 
Che' Cave

Cuban Solitaire habitat
The rest of the afternoon was for bus cruising into Havana town. Alvaro scheduled a day for a cultural tour for our finish and what a great time it was. He surprised us with our transportation from the hotel for the 20 minute ride to Old Havana with a fleet of mint convertible taxis. The last cars imported into Cuba from America were from about 1958. The Cubans have made a culture out of restoring old American cars and keep them running. In Havana there are hundreds of these cars, some running as old beaters just for transportation, but many restored to beautiful condition. It was like a rolling car show. I'm not even a big fanboy of old cars, but this was amazing and an unforgettable experience.

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