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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cuba

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our Cuban tour recorded most of the Cuban endemics as well as a wide variety of North American species.  Scarcer endemics included Gundlach’s Hawk, Blue-headed and Gray-fronted Quail Doves, Bare-legged Owl, Bee Hummingbird, Fernandina’s Flicker, Giant Kingbird, Zapata Wren, Cuban Gnatcatcher and two of the three subspecies of Zapata Sparrow.  Plain and Scaly-naped Pigeons, West Indian endemics, were also noted.  Four species of owls were recorded included the endemic Cuban Pygmy and Bare-legged, as well as the endemic Cuban subspecies of Stygian (on a day roost). Undoubtedly the most surprising find was a handful of Bahama Swallows (photographed) at Cayo Guillermo off the north coast of Cuba.  This Bahamian endemic is strictly casual on Cuba.

IN DETAIL: After our meeting at our hotel near the Miami airport and a delicious dinner (and a short night of sleep) we left early for the airport for our mid-morning flight to Havana.  We got through immigration and customs quickly and our first destination was the home of Cuba’s premier birder and ornithologist, Orlando Garrido.  Orlando was also an accomplished tennis pro.  Orlando worked us through Cuba’s endemics with his mounted specimens and reviewed the status of each in addition to sharing the highlights of his life.  Later we visited old Havana and also stopped at the Nacional Hotel where we enjoyed mojitos and spent time viewing all of the photos on the walls of the celebrities and political figures who had visited there over the previous eight decades.  We also saw a few birds, including a Red-legged Thrush and several Cuban Blackbirds, our first Cuban endemic.  A wintering Yellow-throated Warbler from North America was most cooperative.  In Havana we had numerous Antillean Palm-Swifts. 

We left early the next morning and stopped first at La Chorrera which was very birdy.  Gray Kingbirds and Black-whiskered Vireos were now on territory as well as resident Loggerhead Kingbirds.  Cuban Emerald, Cuban Tody, Cuban Green and West Indian Woodpeckers, Cuban Pygmy-Owl and a pair of Fernandina’s Flickers were all recorded.  Later we headed on to Las Terrezas where after some birding we had a delicious lunch at an old French coffee plantation.  Birds of note included the endemic subspecies of the Northern Flicker, chrysocaulosus. It has a barred rather than a white rump.  Its vocalizations sounded to my ears like North American subspecies.  Later after lunch we stopped at a pig farm where they fed the dozens of grassquits, mostly Yellow-faced (West Indian subspecies, olivaceus), but also a number of endemic and striking Cuban Grassquits.  These small birds are actually tanagers, indeed the only tanagers left in North America.  The others, even those named tanager, are in other families.  A rare migrant Swallow-tailed Kite flew over us and was photographed.  Luis later saw two more over the autopista.  From La Terrezas we drove on to Vinalles stopping along the wat to study numerous Snail Kites and saw several Purple Gallinules, Northern Jacanas and Gull-billed Terns in the flooded fields.  Late in the day we had superb scope views of several Scaly-naped Pigeons, a local and often scarce species restricted to the West Indies.  That evening, Luis spotted an endemic Bare-legged Owl and we had excellent prolonged views of it. 

The following morning we searched hard for Cuban Solitaire, eventually finding a confiding bird.  We also got to hear their beautiful ethereal song echoing off the limestone karst walls.  Red-legged Honeycreepers were numerous here, a species possibly introduced to Cuba some two centuries ago.  Other species of note included Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Bullfinch and Cuban Vireo.  A few saw a Hooded Warbler.  Later after lunch we took the long drive to Playa Larga on the Zapata Peninsula arriving very late in the day. 

The following morning we started at Bermejas.  Our local guide had baited the blind, and shortly after dawn we peered out and had quail-doves almost at arm’s reach!  The purplish Gray-fronted and striking Blue-headed, both endemics, were both present along with numerous Zenaida Doves.  Cuban Parakeets were also present and nearby we saw a few Bee Hummingbirds, an endemic and famous for being the smallest bird species in the world.  Just to the east at La Cuchilla we added a pair of the scarce and very local endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird as well as four Fernandina’s Flickers.  After lunch at the all inconclusive Galleta Buena, we stopped at Sopillar where we located the roosting Stygian Owl (endemic subspecies siguapa). Walking around in the leaf litter was a Swainson’s Warbler, an uncommon winter visitor here.  This was the first one I have seen in Cuba. Cuban Parrots were present in the area too.  Later that night Joan saw another Stygian Owl at our place of lodging.  It was chasing after a Green Heron! 

We arose early the next morning for our drive to Santo Thomás.  In the pre-dawn we heard a Chuck-will’s Widow and a Greater Antillean Nightjar.  As the sky gradually lightened several Limpkins flushed off the road in front of us. Our main goal was the scarce and very local Zapata Wren, endemic not only to Cuba, but found only on the Zapata Peninsula.  At our first stop, the bird known to be present did not show, or vocalize.  However, a Gundlach’s Hawk flew over and provided decent views.  The species is very closely related to Cooper’s Hawk and in fact may be conspecific.  We continued on to another location where a Zapata Wren responded and all eventually got decent views.  Along the way we noted several of the endemic nominate subspecies of the Zapata Sparrow.  Later on at Palpite, we enjoyed a very enjoyable session where folks actually fed Bee Hummingbirds.  Numerous Cuban Orioles were also present as well as Cuban Emeralds and a variety of wintering North American species.  In the afternoon we headed out to Las Salinas where we encountered a variety of shorebirds, Black Skimmers and herons.  We saw our first American Flamingoes and also had Wood Stork, hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants, and a single “Great White Heron,” a species likely to be split as its own species again in 2018.  Clapper Rails were also seen and we did see a single Osprey of the Caribbean subspecies ridgwayi, with a whiter head and broader, less angled wings than our migratory North American subspecies.  Several Cuban Black Hawks were also seen. Their call (“bau-tis-ta”) is very different from our North American species.  The two were formerly treated as conspecific. Around Playa Larga we noted our first Cuban Crows and two Whimbrels flew past us at lunch. 

The next day was mainly a driving day to Camag?ey.  We stopped at a roadside pond where various warblers were present along with Solitary Sandpipers and three Roseate Spoonbills.  Our most notable roadside sighting was a single White-collared Swift, the first one I’ve seen in Cuba.  It almost certainly was the West Indian subspecies, pallidifrons.  At our lunch spot, Rio Azul, we noted several Band-headed Anoles.  Our hotel was in the old and strikingly beautiful old section of colonial Camag?ey. 

The next morning at breakfast, several Cuban Martins were noted over the old Spanish church in the nearby square.  The species is an endemic breeder on Cuba.  Similar to our Purple Martin, the females are paler ventrally, and the shape of both sexes differs too (longer tailed).  Their vocalizations differed as well.  We headed on to La Belén, stopping along the way to view and listen to the strikingly different sounding endemic subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark, hippocrepis.  Several Plain Pigeons were also perched up for scope viewing.  This species is a scarce and local resident in the Greater Antilles. Lots of Cuban and Palm Crows (Cuban subspecies is split as its own species by some) were present too.  At La Belén our main goal was the rare and endemic Giant Kingbird and we soon located a pair and got excellent views. Later in day we had a tricycle tour with peddlers of old Camag?ey followed by a delicious dinner. 

We departed the next day for Cayo Coco, stopping along the way at the Sierra de Cubitas, where we saw a variety of wood warblers as well as our first endemic Oriente Warblers.  Closely related to Yellow-headed Warbler and along with that species, soon to be placed in its own family, it replaces Yellow-headed Warbler in the eastern part of Cuba. Two Broad-winged Hawks (endemic Cuban subspecies) flew over too.  On the causeway to Cayo Coco we noted a single adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, a regular wintering species in Cuba.  After checking in and getting lunch we checked a local beach where a single Piping Plover and an “Eastern” Willet was present. Then we headed west stopping to check a productive sewage pond near the western part of Cayo Coco where we saw a Least Grebe and carefully noted a small flock of Long-billed Dowitchers.  At Cayo Guillermo we noted American Flamingos along with various shorebirds including small numbers of “Western” Willets.  Here Luís found perhaps our best trip bird, Bahama Swallow.  At least five were present and flying overhead late in the day in the loose company of other swallows.  We managed to get documenting photos.  This Bahamian endemic is noted only casually in Cuba, as well as south Florida.  The striking white wing linings along with the forked tail set them apart from the larger Tree Swallows.   That evening we found no sign of Cuban Nightjar, but did see several Barn Owls.

The next morning we departed for Cayo Pered?n Grande, our main targets being Bahama Mockingbird, Thick-billed Vireo, and Cuban Gnatcatcher.  We found no sign of the Bahama Mockingbird but Thick-billed Vireos and Cuban Gnatcatchers (only a few) were present.  The Thick-billed Vireo is an endemic subspecies, cubensis, with an overall yellower coloration than the nominate and browner Bahamian subspecies.  This subspecies is largely restricted to Cayo Perd?n Grande and given the scale of development here, it is likely imperilled.  Cuban Bullfinches were numerous here and gave us good views.  Later on an afternoon walk around Cayo Coco we found a Yellow-throated Vireo along with two Baltimore Orioles.  Good views of Cuban Martins were also obtained.

The next morning we went to Cueva de Jabalí stopping nearby to study more Cuban Gnatcatchers and the varoni subspecies of Zapata Sparrow. Single Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers along with a wide variety of other North America migratory species were present at the water holes near the cave, and we were treated to the sight of some 50 Key West Quail-Doves literally only a few feet away!  After lunch we headed back south across the causeway, admiring some 1000 Greater Flamingos, literally a sea of red.  We overnighted at Rancho de Hatuey.  Late in the afternoon while doing our checklist we saw several flocks of Glossy Ibis heading west.  The following morning we walked the grounds and noted a single (female) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a North American migrant.  And while watching it, it launched itself high in the air and headed north.  On the way back to Havana we noted another Gundlach’s Hawk circling over the autopista.  That evening we had a sumptuous dinner at a riverside restaurant.  We left the following morning before dawn for the airport and our departure (for most) back to Miami.

-Jon Dunn

March 2017

Created: 30 May 2017