Cuba, the largest of the Greater Antilles with over 42,000 square miles, lies only 93 miles south of Florida. For most Americans, this large island has been inaccessible since the Batista government fell at the end of 1958 and Fidel Castro assumed control, but over time, and especially over the last decade, rules have relaxed and Americans can once again visit, albeit with some restrictions, mostly from the American side. As in so many other parts of the world, the habitats of Cuba were severely impacted by logging and other activities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Cuba’s case, trees were felled to expand the sugarcane industry. Despite this, Cuba has an extensive series of national parks and preserves and the government takes conservation issues quite seriously. Of Cuba’s 29 endemic birds, only one is definitely extinct, the Cuban Macaw (since 1864), and we should see over 20 and possibly as many as 26. An almost equal number of species are unique or nearly unique to the West Indian region, most of them restricted to the Greater Antilles or the Bahamas, and the summer breeders will have arrived by late March. In addition many North American birds will still be here on their winter grounds.
Cuba has long been catering to European and Canadian tourists and has a good infrastructure of roads and hotels. Old Havana, restored to the Spanish colonial period, is worth seeing by itself, and we’ll spend much of one day doing just that. Finally, Cuba has long cherished its distinctive and fine musical heritage. We will be serenaded at meals by some of the best musicians in the country.
Day 1: The tour starts at 6:00 p.m. with a meeting in the lobby of our Miami airport motel followed by a walk to dinner. Night near Miami International Airport.
Day 2: We’ll depart as a group for Miami International Airport very early (** See below). If we have to take a charter flight to Havana, the check-in procedures are involved and take several hours, and our one-hour flight will likely take place mid-morning. If commercial flights are available, this process may be more streamlined. On arrival and after clearing immigration, we’ll go visit the home of Orlando Garrido, Cuba’s premier ornithologist and a retired tennis pro who played at Wimbledon in the late 1950s. Orlando will discuss the status, distribution, and taxonomy of all of Cuba’s endemics and show specimens of most of them. Later we’ll visit Old Havana, touring the old colonial portion adjacent to the harbor and having lunch. While we won’t do much birding we should see the endemic Cuban Blackbird and perhaps Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. Cuban Martin, an endemic breeding species, nests around the harbor and we’ll look carefully for it. Antillean Palm Swifts and Red-legged Thrushes should be much in evidence, as should a number of North American wintering warblers, notably Palm. We’ll check the harbor for waterbirds: Sandwich Tern is likely, and we’ve recorded Lesser Black-backed Gull on several occasions in the past, once even a rare (for Cuba) Bonaparte’s Gull. Night in Havana.
Day 3: We’ll depart early for San Diego de los Baños to the west in Pinar del Río province. We’ll make a few stops en route where we hope to pick out the endemic and strikingly patterned Cuban Grassquit among the more numerous Yellow-faced Grassquits (olivacea subspecies). Gray Kingbirds and Black-whiskered Vireos, having recently arrived from South America to breed, should be present as well. Close by is Hacienda Cortina, a large old estate and now a public park with excellent birding. We should see Smooth-billed Ani, Cuban Trogon (the national bird), Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, the distinctively polymorphic sparveroides subspecies of American Kestrel that acts more like a Merlin then a kestrel, Cuban Pewee, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, Loggerhead Kingbird, Cuban Tody, Olive-capped Warbler (a species restricted to parts of Cuba and the northern Bahamas), and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. We stand a decent chance of finding two other highly sought-after Cuban endemics: Fernandina’s Flicker and Giant Kingbird. Least Grebe and Purple Gallinule are possible, as are a variety of North American wintering species, including a late Louisiana Waterthrush. Night at San Diego de los Banos.
Day 4 This morning we’ll visit Cueva de las Portales in La Guira National Park, best known as Che Guevara’s hideout during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Here in the trees among the limestone karst formations we’ll be looking carefully for the endemic Cuban Solitaire. A somewhat somberly colored bird, its dull appearance is more than made up for by its beautiful and complex song. We should see both White-winged and Zenaida Doves and with luck Scaly-naped Pigeon. Cuba has almost as many endemic Anolis lizards as it does birds. Some of them are large and colorful, and here we might see Western Giant, Water, and Cliff Anoles. Later we’ll retrace our steps past Havana and then turn south for the Zapata Peninsula. We’ll make a few stops at two inland reservoirs where we should see some lingering wintering ducks and perhaps a Snail Kite. Late in the afternoon we’ll arrive at Playa Larga near the Zapata Swamp and the site of the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. On our hotel grounds before sunset we might see Cuban Parrot and Cuban Crow, the latter possessed of a remarkable vocabulary that is almost comical. Night at Playa Larga.
Days 5-6: We’ll bird the vast Zapata Swamp for the next two days. On one morning we’ll visit Bermejas, where we have a chance of seeing three species of quail-dove, including two striking endemics, Gray-fronted and Blue-headed. Key West Quail-Dove is usually present, and there is at least a chance of seeing Ruddy Quail-Dove. Other endemic species here include Cuban Parakeet, Cuban Pygmy and Bare-legged Owls, Cuban Vireo, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Oriole, and the diminutive Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. We often find Great Lizard Cuckoo, Western Spindalis (endemic Cuban pretrei subspecies), and Shiny Cowbird along with a fine variety of North American wintering wood warblers. On some occasions a roosting Stygian Owl (endemic siguapa subspecies) can be located, and elsewhere in the area we should find Limpkin and perhaps the endemic chrysocaulosus subspecies of Northern Flicker.
We’ll arise before dawn one morning to see if we can locate Cuban Nightjar near Playa Larga. Once it gets light, we’ll try to find what will probably be our most difficult endemic, the distinctive (especially on vocalizations) Zapata Wren. We have a good chance of seeing the endemic Zapata Sparrow (inexpectata subspecies) and with good fortune might see a Spotted Rail. The endemic Zapata Rail is or was found here too, but it has reached near mythical status with essentially no confirmed records for many years, if not decades. Later we’ll visit Salinas de Bides, noted for its many American Flamingoes along with numerous other waterbirds. Here “Golden” Yellow Warblers are resident, and we should also see Clapper Rail and the endemic and distinctive-sounding Cuban Black Hawk. If we missed Cuban Nightjar at dawn, we’ll try for it again at dusk. Nights in Playa Larga.
Day 7: If we’ve missed Zapata Wren, we’ll try for it again first thing in the morning, but today will be mostly devoted to our long drive to Camagüey, an old city with beautiful colonial architecture. As we leave Playa Larga, we’ll stop at a marsh where the endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird occurs. Night in Camagüey.
Day 8: This morning we’ll venture east to La Belen, stopping along the way in agricultural country to listen to the endemic hippocrepis Eastern Meadowlarks. Their song and even their appearance are more suggestive of Western Meadowlark, and they should probably be considered their own species. In the open country we might also see Crested Caracara and our only Palm Crows, and around the ponds we might find Northern Jacana. At La Belen we’ll walk the trails in the preserve. The threatened Giant Kingbird is found regularly here, and we should get good comparisons with the more numerous Loggerhead Kingbird. We have as well a good chance here or nearby of seeing Plain Pigeon, a scarce West Indian species. We’ll return in the late afternoon and have a bit of time to take a bicycle trip (not self-driven!) along the streets of the old colonial city. Night in Camagüey.
Day 9: After breakfast we’ll look at the old church for Cave Swallow and Cuban Martin before heading to Cayo Coco, off the north coast. On the long causeway we should see large numbers of American Flamingoes feeding in the shallow water.
We’ll be staying at an all-inclusive lodge that caters to Europeans and Canadians. The birding is excellent adjacent to the grounds, and we have a good chance of seeing the endangered West Indian Whistling-Duck. We’ll do some late afternoon birding on nearby trails searching for Key West Quail-Dove, the endemic Oriente Warbler, Cuban Bullfinch, and various wintering North American wood warblers; Greater Antillean Grackles will be numerous. Night on Cayo Coco.
Day 10: This morning we’ll visit Cayo Perodon Grande, where we’ll search for the endemic Cuban Gnatcatcher, distinctive in its black outline to the auriculars, and the endangered (for Cuba) Thick-billed Vireo. While looking for these two species we’ll have a chance to see Bahama Mockingbird along with a scattering of La Sagra’s Flycatchers, Oriente Warblers, and a number of wintering North American warblers. In the flowering agaves Cuban Emeralds can be almost abundant.
The endemic Zapata Sparrow occurs locally on Cayo Coco but represents a different subspecies (varoni) than the Zapata Swamp birds, and the Ospreys here (ridgwayi subspecies) have nearly white heads. We’ll spend some time in the afternoon looking for shorebirds and other water birds, including “Great White Heron.” Night on Cayo Coco.
Day 11: In some years a nest of the rare Gundlach’s Hawk, another endemic, has been located in the Cayo Coco area, and if one has been found we’ll look for it. This bird’s appearance and vocalizations are strongly suggestive of the North American Cooper’s Hawk, as is apparently its genetic composition. Not long after breakfast we’ll begin our two-day journey back to Havana, broken by a night in Santa Clara. On our way to Santa Clara we’ll likely stop to search for Mangrove Cuckoo. Night in Santa Clara.
Day 12: Before breakfast we’ll bird the grounds of our Santa Clara resort, firming up our memories of some of the species we’ve seen and perhaps looking again for Gundlach’s Hawk, a pair of which have been present in recent years. After breakfast we’ll head back to Havana. After some time off in the afternoon we’ll gather for a final grand dinner at a nice restaurant along the waterfront. Night in Havana.
Day 13: After breakfast we’ll head to José Martí International Airport for our charter or commercial flight back to Miami, where the tour concludes around midday to mid-afternoon.
Updated: 10 February 2017
- 2017 Tour Prices : $6,150
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $680
- **Miami - Havana flight pricing is variable (see below)
- 2018 Tour Price Not Yet Available
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.
** The Miami - Havana flight isn’t included in the tour pricing because it’s subject to change. At present time we don’t yet know if we’ll have to use the long-standing charter flights for this tour (more expensive) or if there will be regularly scheduled airline service between Miami and Havana (potentially much cheaper). If the charter flights are the only option at confirmation time, expect the Miami - Havana flight to cost around $500 - $550, plus an additional $30 for departure tax, $36 for medical insurance (required by Cuban gov’t), and a $75 visa fee. These charter flights and associated fees must be booked by our partner organization with the proper permits. This flight will be added to your invoice or billed separately later.
As of September 2016 there is encouraging news that commecial flights to Havana will be up and running by the time of our tour, but this is still not yet confirmed.
*** This tour is organized by our partner, Caribbean Conservation Trust, Inc. (CCT), a U.S. based organization committed to the conservation of endemic and migratory birds and their habitats in the greater Caribbean region. The U.S. Department of Treasury has provided a license for conducting bird conservation work in Cuba to CCT and it is through this program our tour will be permitted. Your participation in this program will involve a bird and habitat survey each day. Data is compiled by the group and submitted by the trip leader to CCT staff.
Please note that some aspects of this tour are still in flux as on-the-ground developments continue in Cuba. Please refer back here occasionally for the latest.
Maximum group size 12 with one WINGS and multiple local leaders.